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THE UNITY OF THE CHURCH
(A talk to the brothers and sisters in Shanghai on March 6, 1951, published in The Open Door, dated April 15, 1951.)
The most important, visible problem of recent days is perhaps the unity of the church. Today we must see the way of unity and how to walk in unity.
According to my knowledge, there are four kinds of unity. From among these four different kinds of unity, we must seek one in which to walk as the children of God. We must be clear which one is in accordance with God’s will, which one is scriptural, which one is the proper way for the church, and which one we must take. We must learn to reject the rest. When we see one that is of God, we must reject the ones that are not of God.
What are these four ways? First, there is the unity of Roman Catholicism; second, “spiritual” unity; third, the unity of the church in the locality; and fourth, the unity of the independent congregations. Let us consider these one by one.
The Unity of Roman Catholicism
The Churches during the Apostles’ Time Being Local
During the apostles’ time, the churches were separated according to localities. I think this matter is very clear. The church in Rome, the church in Corinth, the church in Ephesus, the church in Philippi, the church in Laodicea, and the church in Colossae were all separated according to locality. The church in every locality had its own independent administration. Therefore, in the Bible, Acts 14:23 tells us “they had appointed elders for them in every church,” and Titus 1:5 tells us that elders were appointed “in every city.” The elders are for the church and the church is in a city. Thus, the elders are for the church in a city. The church takes the city as the unit; otherwise, elders in a city would take care of several churches or elders in a church would take care of several cities. The boundary of a city, therefore, equals the boundary of the church, and the boundary of the church equals the boundary of the elders’ administration. This is very clear.
The churches in the early days were not formed into a larger, united church. During the apostles’ time, the Scriptures acknowledge the existence of “churches” on this earth, but does not unite these churches into “one church.” There were “churches,” but not a uniting together as one church in the singular number. This is the reason Paul writes to the Corinthians: “Neither the churches of God” (1 Cor. 11:16). Today when God’s children speak about the church, they always speak of the “church of God,” not about the “churches of God.” In our concept, we always consolidate the churches into one church; therefore, we speak of “the church” rather than “the churches.” But in the minds of the apostles, there were individual churches; therefore, they spoke of “the churches of God.” The apostles did not unite the churches on earth into one church; otherwise, this phrase “the churches of God” would not have existed. Remember that 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 always speak of “the churches,” which means that the churches of God on earth are local. They did not combine all the churches of God on earth into one church. This was the situation during the time of the apostles.
The History of Change
After the apostles, the church began to change. The churches in big cities spontaneously began to become powerful. A big city naturally had a greater population; thus, the churches in larger cities became more powerful than churches in small cities or villages. The churches in big cities were inclined to absorb churches in smaller cities and villages so that they became satellites. The big cities became centers, while the smaller cities became accessories around them. As a result, there were changes not only in the organization but also in the administration of the church. Originally, there were several elders in a church. The churches in villages or in small cities also had their own elders. After the apostles passed away, however, a group of people in the early church advocated the doctrine that the authority of the apostles had been committed to the elders or bishops who represented the apostles. This was done out of respect for the apostles. Because they honored the first group of apostles, they were reluctant to designate anyone else as an apostle. They dared not use the title apostle.
Later, they appointed one from among many elders in a big city to be the bishop. Originally, elders were all bishops (overseers); each one was a bishop. The term elder refers to the person himself, and bishop refers to his office. But gradually, among the many elders, one was chosen to be a bishop, who became not only the head of the elders in a locality but also the head of the elders in the satellite churches.
This is how the changes came about: First, the church in a big city made all the churches in the small cities and villages its satellites. Later, a head elder was designated out of the big church, who naturally became the head elder of the satellite churches. He was called the bishop. This is a title found in the Bible, but the function now associated with it was not the same as what is in the Bible. In the Bible the elders are bishops. Paul called the elders in Ephesus together and said, “Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among whom the Holy Spirit has placed you as overseers [bishops]” (Acts 20:17, 28). The bishops in the Bible were plural; the elders were also plural. But today one is picked from among many elders to become the bishop. Only one is bishop while the rest are elders, not bishops. The elders no longer have the authority of a bishop. Smaller localities were united together and given over to the rule of this one bishop. One person was made to rule over many churches, and the matter of regions arose.
This development did not stop at just this level. During this same time the Roman Empire conquered the whole world. Among the many churches, the church in the city of Rome became very big. The city was not only large but also the capital. People throughout the whole world came to Rome to see Caesar. At first a bishop ruled over many places, which resulted in a regional church. As the city of Rome became prominent, it began to claim, “We are the capital, and Caesar lives in our midst.” Consequently, the bishop in the church of Rome not only ruled over the elders of the church in Rome but also over the elders in the region surrounding Rome. He not only became the head of the elders within the entire empire but also, more particularly, the head of the bishops of the various regions. This was the pope, the product of an order of ascending rank in the form of a hierarchy. Today the meaning of bishop in various denominations is “overseer.” The head of all such overseers is the pope. The reason everyone is ambitious to be the bishop of Rome is that once one becomes the bishop in Rome, he is spontaneously the bishop of the whole world and the head of all the elders in the world. Once one becomes the bishop in Rome, he immediately becomes the pope, and he represents Christ. This trend continued until its development became fully complete in the fourth century. By that time, “the churches” as recorded in the Bible no longer existed; they were now “one church.” The churches in the whole world became one church. From that day on, “the churches of God” as mentioned in the Bible (1 Cor. 11:16) no longer existed and no longer were mentioned. “The churches of the saints,” as mentioned in 1 Corinthians 14:33, also no longer were heard of, no longer were mentioned, and no longer existed. They all became part of the one church of Rome, and all the churches throughout the world became branches of Rome. There were no longer churches associated with just localities.
Was there a scriptural basis for this development? Supposedly, the scriptural basis was the fact that the children of God should be one. Since the Lord has only one church on this earth, they thought that they should be united as “one church.” However, they forgot that the Bible speaks of “the churches.”
No One Daring to Break the “Unity”
We must take notice of one condition that prevailed after the Roman Catholic Church came into being. We know how the Roman Church was filled with heresy, idols, filthiness, and sins. Why did no brothers or sisters in the church stand up to deal with the situation for eleven hundred years? Could it be that no brothers or sisters had seen the heresies? Could it be that they had not seen the idols? Could it be that they had not seen the filthy sins?
In the eleven hundred years following the fourth century, there were definitely some who saw the heresies, idols, and filthy sins, but not one dared to deal with them! They feared that once they dealt with these things, they would immediately break the “unity.” “The church is one,” they said. “If we begin to deal with the idols, the church will be divided.” They felt that the sin of worshipping idols was great, but the sin of ruining the unity was even greater. Therefore, even though they rejected the worship of idols themselves, they did not speak out. They feared that speaking out might ruin the unity. They knew of the heresies and they knew of the idols; moreover, they hated the heresies and they hated the idols. But even more, they hated to destroy the unity. Therefore, they simply avoided the heresies and idols; they dared not evoke any word, message, or action that might ruin the unity. For a period of one thousand one hundred years no one made any move; they continued to keep the unity of the church.
At the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther had no thought of forming another church. He thought that doing such a thing would be a serious sin. Therefore, at the beginning his thought was to improve the Roman Catholic Church; the idea of forming another church was not in his mind. It was the inevitable force of history that brought about the formation of another church. Luther only wanted to improve the Roman Catholic Church; he had no intention of forming a new church.
Here we see one thing: The Roman Catholic Church believes in the unity of the church throughout the world. It believes that only one church should exist in the whole world. That is the reason, during the long history of Rome, that the children of God basically forgot that the “churches” were plural in the Bible. They only wanted the church in the singular. Even when Luther arose, he only saw a united church on the earth. He did not see that God has churches in the Bible. Thus, the unity that was upheld is something manifested in one church—the international, worldwide, universal church. Regardless of where this church stands, it is always the Church of Rome. In Shanghai it is the Church of Rome; in Moscow it is the Church of Rome; in London it is the Church of Rome; in Berlin it is also the Church of Rome. Wherever it is, it is always the Church of Rome. It does not call itself the Church of Rome; its proper title is the Catholic Church, the Universal Church. We call it the Church of Rome because we know it comes out of Rome. It calls itself the Catholic Church because it is unified and universal; it includes everyone. In China it is called the Catholic Church. The word catholic in Latin simply means universal and general, with no distinction in race or region. No matter where it is, it is always one—one in England, one in Japan, and one in Russia. As long as it comes out of Rome, it is called the Catholic Church. As a result, there is only “one church” on earth.
We must study the Scriptures carefully and accurately before God to ascertain whether or not the church on earth is one church. If it is only one church, we must say that the local church is wrong, and even the many denominations in Protestantism must also confess that they are wrong. If there is but one church, we all have to go back to Rome; if we do not, we are wrong. Therefore, we must study the Scriptures to see whether or not we are wrong.
I know there are some Protestant friends who have said that the church on earth is one and that our churches in different localities are wrong. According to them, the church is always one. Please note that their word condemns them. If the church is one, there is no reason for any of their denominations to exist. If the church is one, then regardless of where it is, it must be the Church of Rome. According to numbers, the Church of Rome is the largest, according to history, it is the oldest church, and according to organization, it is one. If there should be only one church, that is, if the church of God or the church of Christ should be singular, then this would be the scriptural way. We should all return to Rome. However, the Bible does not teach this.
In the last century, John H. Newman, a contemporary of J. N. Darby, was a famous English clergyman. He was not only pious, but he had an excellent mind and wrote many books. He was considered one of the most famous persons in the Anglican Church. The hymn “Lead, Kindly Light” was composed by him. He believed that there was only one church in the world, so he started a movement in the Anglican Church to return to Rome. Of course, he was unsuccessful, because Revelation 2 and 3 clearly show that Sardis cannot go back to Thyatira. He thought that it was logical to leave the Anglican Church and join the Roman Church since there was only one church. After being received as a member of the Roman Church, he was promoted to the position of cardinal over England. A cardinal is next in rank only to the pope. He was not only a bishop but a cardinal. There was only one cardinal in England; he was the archbishop of a large region. When a pope passes away, the new pope is chosen from among the scores of cardinals. Many people have expressed regret for Newman, but in reading his books, I feel that his beginning was consistent with his end. I do not say that he was right, but his behavior matched his doctrine. He believed in only one church; therefore, he went back to Rome. One should not believe in one church and yet remain in the denominations. One should not confess that the church is one and be a pastor in the Anglican Church or an elder in the Presbyterian Church. Newman was thoroughly consistent and uncontradicting. His end harmonized with his beginning. In this regard many people in the denominations cannot compare with him.
The Bible Saying, “the Churches of God”
Does the Bible ever say that there is only one church on the earth? No! The Bible shows us that God establishes churches on the earth, that is, one church in each locality. Here is an important matter which we must notice before God: In the Bible, God has never united the churches in the many localities together as one church.
Do we have proof of this? Yes! We will look at this matter from three directions. First, after the Romans defeated the Jewish nation, Judea was changed from a nation into a province of Rome. Many churches, each in one locality, existed in the region, the province, of Judea. When the Bible speaks of the churches of Judea, it does not say the church in Judea, but “the churches” in Judea (1 Thes. 2:14). Have we ever seen the importance of the word churches? Although all the churches existed in one province, there was not a provincial church. If there was a provincial church, it would have been recorded as the church in Judea, not as the churches in Judea. Since the Bible speaks of them as the churches in Judea, it means that there were many individual churches, not the uniting together of many as the one church of Judea. There was no such thing as a united church.
Second, we can consider Galatia, which is not a city, but like Judea is a province. When the Bible speaks of Galatia, it never says “the church” in Galatia, but “the churches of Galatia” (1 Cor. 16:1), not church in the singular, but churches in the plural. This shows us that several churches were not joined together in Galatia to form one church. They were still churches.
Third, during that time the largest province was Asia. We can see that all the important churches were in Asia: Ephesus was in Asia, Colossae was in Asia, and Laodicea was in Asia. We should not consider that Laodicea was not so good because the Bible did not give it a good report in Revelation. In fact, Laodicea was very good in the beginning, and it was a very large place. Many churches existed in Asia (1 Cor. 16:19), but they were not united together as the church in Asia; rather, Revelation 1:4 speaks of “the seven churches which are in Asia.” Therefore, there is not a united church in the Bible. The churches in a province did not unite, and the churches in the whole world did not unite. The Bible never indicates that the churches in a province should unite as one church, that the churches in a country should unite as one church, or that the churches on a continent should unite as one church. There is no such church in the Bible. There is no such indication that the churches in the whole world should unite as one church. Acts never speaks of such a thing.
Furthermore, what does Paul say when he speaks of the church in the Epistles? For example, in 1 Corinthians he speaks of “the churches of God” (11:16) and of “all the churches of the saints” (14:33), that is, he speaks of not one church, but many churches. The church composed of all the saints is not the church, but the churches of the saints. Three or four brothers and sisters become a church here, and three or four brothers become a church there. They are the churches of the saints. The Bible does not use the phrase the church of God when it refers to the churches on earth; it does not use the phrase the church of the saints. The Bible clearly speaks of the churches of God and the churches of the saints. It is evident that God has no thought of uniting all the churches into one church.
In order for God to do something, He must first accomplish two works: The doctrine must be preached, and the apostles must work it out. There is no doctrine of uniting the churches. I have studied the Bible many times, but I have never seen a doctrine in it that indicates that there is only one church on earth. Neither do the apostles work toward such a thing. The Lord wanted the apostles to be completely obedient; He would not let them have their own opinions and act by themselves. Everything done by the apostles was done in obedience to the Lord; therefore, they were qualified to be apostles. If they had acted by themselves and by their own opinions, God would not have acknowledged their work as His work because a distance would have existed between them. God demanded that they obey completely and be thoroughly consecrated. Then God acknowledged what they did as His own work. The apostles did not unite the churches on earth into one church. We do not have such an apostolic pattern, nor do we have such a scriptural teaching.
If God intended to unite all the churches on the earth into one big, grand church, why did He not do such a thing through the hands of such men as Peter, James, John, and Paul? Why did He wait three or four hundred years to accomplish this through the pope? I believe in the pattern of Peter and Paul, but not in the pattern of the pope. I believe in the things done by Peter and Paul, but not in the things done by the pope. I believe in the apostles who were absolute to the Lord, but not in the popes. We absolutely cannot follow them. This is the reason I do not believe in such a thing as the Church of Christ in China. The church is local. There are only “the churches” of Christ in China, not “the Church” of Christ in China. Brothers, do you see the difference? Only the churches in China, not the church in China, should exist. There should be one church in Shanghai, one church in Tientsin. There may well be 8,000 or 9,000 churches throughout the whole of China, but it is absolutely impossible to make them become one church in China.
We see one thing here: The Bible contains absolutely no pattern or commandment for combining all the churches on earth into one organized, formal church. On the contrary, all the patterns and all the teachings in the Bible show that the churches are local and plural in number.
If I am a seeker after God, I cannot join the Roman Catholic Church. It is a worldly organization, one in which all the churches in the whole world are combined into one church. In this one church, the pope acts like an emperor, and the cardinals act like princes in each nation. Since they are an organization of the world, we cannot join them. When we speak with the brothers and sisters in different localities about the unity of the church, we must tell them that our unity is not the unity of the Roman Catholic Church. Today on this earth, there is a unity which is the unity of the Roman Catholic Church. This will not do, because it is not of God. According to history, this is something worked out by man; it is not what God wants us to have.
There is a second kind of unity today which can be found throughout the world, and it is called “spiritual” unity. What is the definition of this spiritual unity, and from where does it originate?
Originally, Roman Catholicism was the state religion of the Roman Empire. The term state religion has a very interesting definition: It means the religion of a nation. The nation, the king, or the emperor ordains such a religion for its people. In other words, once a person is born as a subject of a nation, he becomes a member of the religion of that nation. If a person is a Roman citizen, he automatically joins the Roman religion. Either a person has no nationality and therefore has no membership in any nation’s religion, or he is born a citizen of a nation and consequently is a member of the religion of that nation. Whether or not he is willing, he must take part in that religion. This is not a matter that is left up to him to decide; it has been decided by the emperor. If he depends upon the nation for his living, he must take part in the nation’s religion.
After the Roman Empire accepted Roman Catholicism as the state religion, the membership of the Roman Catholic Church became the same as the population of the Roman Empire. Formerly, the members of the church only equaled the number of those who through repentance had been regenerated and baptized. Now, however, no one needed to join the church per se. As long as one was born in the country and his father was a Roman, he was qualified to become a member of the Roman religion. There was no need for him to experience regeneration. My father is Chinese, and I was born of my father. It is unnecessary for me to be naturalized in order for me to become a Chinese, because I am Chinese by birth. This was the situation in the Roman Catholic Church; once one was born a Roman, he was a member of the Roman Catholic Church. One who was born of the flesh could now become a “child” of God. This completely changed the word in John 1:12-13. It became unnecessary to be born of God or to receive the Lord Jesus. Instead, being born of blood, of the will of the flesh, and of the will of man was all that was necessary. As long as one was a Roman, he was a member of the Roman Catholic Church. This was the Roman Catholic Church.
Protestantism Originally Being a State Religion Also
At the beginning of the Protestant movement, Martin Luther only wanted to reform the Roman Catholic Church; he did not expect to form a new church. The formation of a new church was not due to religious reasons, but to political ones. Because the Roman pope ruled over the whole world, even the emperor was afraid of him. According to the pope, emperors ruled over the human body, while he ruled over the human soul. Even though the pope’s body was ruled over by the emperor, the emperor’s soul was ruled over by the pope. The Kaiser could have been the greatest imperialist, but he could do nothing against the pope; the pope ruled over him. If the pope closed the door to the heavenly kingdom, no one could enter in, not even a king. In effect, the pope ruled over the whole world. Thus, the kings of all the nations were very afraid of him. They were kings, yet someone ruled over them. They were kings, yet someone above them was their king. The pope was the supreme ruler of the whole world.
When Luther rose up to reform the church, these kings realized that there was a way for them to separate themselves from Rome. They did not want the pope to rule over their souls; they wanted to rule themselves. They wanted a different church, one not ruled over by the pope. In certain things the commandments they gave could be altered by the pope. The pope could just issue another commandment, and the people dared not disobey, because disobedience to the pope meant that their souls would go to hell. Luther rose up and took advantage of this opportunity. He preached justification by faith, that is, the right of every man to go to God. There were many kings and princes who waited for Luther to go ahead and who were willing to support him with force. The pope tried to quell the reformers by force. In response, the kings seized the opportunity to send out armies to battle, and the fighting was fierce. Afterwards, not only was there a separation of doctrine but also a separation from the Roman Catholic Church. What was the result? Those who followed Luther’s teaching became part of the Church of Germany in Germany, the Church of Holland in Holland, and the Church of England in England. Originally, the Roman Empire encompassed the whole world. Germany, Holland, and England were smaller kingdoms within it. Now Germany had its own Lutheran Church, Holland had its own Dutch Reformed Church, and England had its own Anglican Church. These were also state churches, only they were smaller than the Roman Church.
Anyone born of British parents becomes a member of the Anglican Church. The moment one comes out of the womb of his mother, he is automatically a member of the Anglican Church. This is the reason behind infant baptism. It is necessary to have an infant registered in the church. Since he is British, he is automatically a member of the Anglican Church. It is unnecessary to believe. It is only a matter of registration. If he is registered, he is a member. One can be born an Englishman and a Christian at the same time. Later, when private churches were raised up, the members had to leave the Anglican Church. Members of these private churches were called “dissenters,” which means that they dissented from the state church. They were originally in the state church, but when they wanted to come out they first had to leave the state church in order to join another. If a person wanted to join the Wesleyan Church, he first had to leave the Anglican Church. They were dissenters; otherwise, they would not have come out.
The Doctrine of the Visible and the Invisible Church Produced
At this point a problem arose. Since both the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Church were state churches, they naturally contained many unsaved people. A person cannot be saved by birth. If a person could be saved by birth, we would only have to make Christianity the state religion of China and then all the Chinese would be Christians. Becoming a Christian by regeneration would become unnecessary. However, this is impossible. Being born is one thing, but being born again is quite another. As a result of such a practice, all the state churches were filled with unsaved people. Thank God, there were also many saved ones. But the unsaved people, in spite of their education and background, were still unsaved.
There then is a problem: Is the Anglican Church the church? If it is the church, how could there be so many unsaved people in it? Surely this is quite strange! In this church there are quite a number of unbelievers. How could this be? Consequently, a certain doctrine of the church emerged. According to this doctrine, there are two kinds of churches: visible and invisible, that is, a church with a form and another church without a form. In this doctrine the church spoken of in the Scriptures was regarded as invisible and spiritual, but the church on the earth was regarded as visible and with a form. In the visible church there could be false Christians, but in the spiritual church everyone was genuine. Brothers, we must know that all doctrines have an origin. The doctrine of the spiritual church, that is, the doctrine of a visible and an invisible church, was brought in just as we have mentioned. Since man brought in so many false believers, the visible church, of course, became untrustworthy. Since all the British people fell into one net, there had to be both “good fish” and “bad fish.” This is wrong. The Scriptures teach that the church is the Body of Christ and Christ is the Head of the church; thus, only believers can be the church. How can there be unbelievers in the church? Since so many unbelievers filled the church, what else could be done except to produce a doctrine about two kinds of churches, a visible one which is unreliable and an invisible one which is real? It was inevitable that this kind of doctrine would be produced. It was essential to justify their existence; otherwise, it was impossible for them to go on. Brothers, do you see the point? It is by necessity that this kind of doctrine was produced. The visible church became too loose; anything could be found in her. As a result, such a doctrine was compelled to be produced.
Supporters of this doctrine quoted the Scripture where it says that Satan sowed tares after the Lord sowed the seed. It says that we should not remove the tares, but “let both grow together” (Matt. 13:24, 30). These ones said that the invisible and spiritual church consists of those who are born again, among whom not one is false. But in the visible church there are tares, which should not be removed. Many brothers and sisters reading this passage thought that this was right, that there was a difference between the visible and the invisible church. They did not realize that such evil can never be covered up by the doctrine of the visible and invisible churches. These ones made the church too inclusive. The Lord Jesus was speaking about the wheat and the tares growing together in the world (Matt. 13:38), not in the church! Since the church was expanded to be as large as the world, naturally tares were included in the church. Consequently, the only way to explain the church was to say that there is a church with form and a church without form. It is true that these ones acknowledged that the Anglican Church is too big. But there is another church, the church in the Bible, which only consists of spiritual and regenerated persons.
What was the condition of the churches on earth in Revelation 2 and 3? They were the seven golden lampstands. What is a golden lampstand? It is a place where light shines forth. When He was on earth, the Lord Jesus said, “Let your light shine before men.” What is the use if the light shines, but men cannot see it (Matt. 5:16)? Tonight, we can be here because there is visible light. What could we do if it were invisible? An invisible light is a joke, a big joke. How can there be an invisible light? Furthermore, if light is visible, it must have a form; it cannot be without form. A light without form is a lie. The church on the earth must be seen by men. The Bible has no thought of the church being an invisible light. But today, the church is spoken of not in relation to putting a lamp under a bushel, but of shining forth invisible light from a lampstand! The word that the Lord Jesus spoke to us is clear enough. He said, “You are the light of the world. It is impossible for a city situated upon a mountain to be hidden” (Matt. 5:14). This is visible, not invisible. The Lord wants us to be manifested on the earth and seen of men.
We must see, therefore, that what is called the visible church is actually the world. Because some insist on calling it a church, they explain that there is another church within this outward church. However, the church spoken of in God’s Word is one that comes out of the world and is separated from the world. Since this is so, we only can acknowledge the existence of a spiritual church, not an outward church.
The problem today is that there are many brothers and sisters who think that the unity among Christians is a “spiritual” unity. According to this spiritual unity, there are some people in the church who are spiritual and some who are not. Thus, in every church there is an outward aspect and a spiritual aspect. With spiritual unity, a group of spiritual brothers can have fellowship with another group of spiritual brothers, and they can all be one with each other. I want to point out that the reason there is a need for this kind of spiritual unity is that there are some who are of the world. If everyone is brought forth by the word of God, the question of spiritual unity would never need to arise.
This matter is very important because it touches a basic problem. If you ask someone how many are unsaved in his denomination, he would probably say about half of them. Several denominations may tell you that they would be very happy if one in ten is saved. These denominations are not much different from the state church. They are like an onion which has many layers that can be peeled off. What they mean is that the nine outside layers mean nothing; only the center counts. Undoubtedly, the principle of the denominations is still the principle of the state church because many in their midst do not belong to the Lord. For this reason their fellowship must, by necessity, be limited to spiritual ones, not to the whole church. If the whole church were to fellowship together, many unbelievers would be involved. In order to have spiritual fellowship, the whole church cannot be included. But the Bible includes the whole church as the boundary of fellowship. Because the condition of the church is murky and the boundary of the church is ill-defined, there is the need of “spiritual” fellowship.
Today many kinds of peculiar churches exist in the world because many non-Christians were brought into them. Since many unbelievers and false Christians are in the “church,” Christians in these churches have to maintain an invisible fellowship; all their fellowship is invisible. They say that they have fellowship of the heart, that their hearts are joined to each other. Let me say this: The very need for this kind of fellowship is a mistake. We must understand and see through this. This need for “spiritual” unity exists only because the position is wrong. If we stand in the right position, we are already one. If the church is proper, the invisible would become visible, and there would be no need for invisible fellowship. The Lord said that the church is a lampstand, but they say that the light it sheds is only an invisible light. This is strange. This kind of spiritual fellowship and spiritual unity was produced by mixing unbelievers in the church.
The Producing of Many Denominations
This view creates two problems: we have just seen the problem from the viewpoint of the state church; now we must see it from the viewpoint of the dissenters, many of whom did not approve of the state church. They not only disapproved but also stood up to oppose the errors of the state church. Such were the Baptists, the Presbyterians, and the Wesleyans. The Wesleyans thought that preaching could be done everywhere. As dissenters, they rose up and formed churches to maintain the truth based upon their dissent. Thus, the Baptist Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Wesleyan Church, the Quaker Church, and later several thousand groups, arose. In England they were called the dissenters. In the Russian Empire, the state church was called the Russian Orthodox Church, and the rest were called sects. All these brothers rose up for the truth. This is a good point! We thank God for this. Regrettably, however, they tried to maintain God’s truth by setting up new churches, thus causing the church of God to be divided into several thousand parts.
Later, the situation gradually changed. In the first generation of their existence both sides argued considerably. For example, Wesley argued fiercely with the Church of England. In the third and fourth generations, however, the arguing subsided, and there was not much difference between them. Formerly, they would not greet one another and communicate with each other, but today they even pray together. For example, the United Christian Church, which was originally in the Wesleyan Church, demanded that Wesleyans accept the doctrine of divine healing. They argued so terribly over this matter that they later separated. Now in the third generation, they no longer argue. In the beginning the differences were great, but now they are not great. Some of the people in the United Christian Church, however, believed in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues. They left to establish the Pentecostal Church. At first, there were terrible arguments among them, but now it no longer matters.
Today all these churches have been formed. Some formed the Baptist Church because of baptism, some formed the Lutheran Church because of Luther, some formed the Methodist Church because of Wesley, and some formed the Christian and Missionary Alliance because of Simpson. In the Bible, however, no church was formed based on a certain doctrine. There is not one instance in the Bible where a special doctrine warrants the establishment of a church. According to the apostle Paul, the doctrines which men have argued most strongly about were not major problems. In Romans 14 Paul said it is all right for one man to observe this day while another observes another day. Some may be for one day, while others may be for another day, while still others may be for both days (vv. 5-6). These people are weak in the faith. But they should not be divided by doctrines. Some do not eat meat because they are weak in the faith, but they feel it is all right to eat vegetables (v. 2). Paul did not form a vegetarian church, nor did he form a meat-eating church. Some ate vegetables and some ate meat. Paul said none of these should pose any problem; we should receive those whom the Lord has received because God has received them (Rom. 14:3). If he eats vegetables, he is a brother; if he eats meat, he is still a brother. If he observes this day, he is a brother; if he observes another day, he is still a brother. There is no example in the Bible of forming a church according to doctrine.
According to the Bible, how is the church formed? The only requirement is in Romans 14: “Receive…for God has received him” (vv. 1, 3). We must receive whomever God receives. We receive him because God has received him. He has the life of God. Formerly, he was a sinner, but now he has come to the Lord. The only question we need to ask is whether or not he has received the Lord. If he has, any further word is unnecessary. As to his behavior as a Christian, we should help him with the teachings of the Bible, but we cannot refuse him and put him outside the church. Some believe in baptism by sprinkling; they are better than those who do not baptize at all. The Salvation Army does not sprinkle and neither do the Quakers. Some baptize by rubbing drops of water; others baptize by immersion. Philip and the eunuch went down into the water (Acts 8:38), and the Lord Jesus came out of the water (Matt. 3:16). Going down and coming up must mean baptism by immersion. However, some people only immerse their hands in the water, not their bodies. According to the Scriptures, we must be immersed. Today some baptize by rubbing on water. We should not tell them that they belong to the “water-rubbing” church. We cannot establish a church according to doctrine. Regardless of whether baptism is by immersion or by rubbing on water, we can only ask, Have these brothers been received by God? Have these brothers been saved? If they are saved, despite whether or not they have been rubbed with water, they will stand before God. How can we not receive them? If we are going to spend eternity with them, how can we not receive them today? How can we each go our own way because we cannot accept others’ shortcomings? This should not be! The Bible shows that the church includes all those whom the Lord has received.
Furthermore, in Romans 14 Paul said, “Now him who is weak in faith receive,” not reject. We recognize that this brother is weak, but we must not reject him; rather, we must receive him. Often we err by considering that he can follow us only if his faith is as strong as ours. Instead, we need to see that we must receive those who are weak in the faith. If we reject them, at the most we can shut them out of the church for a few score of years. We cannot shut them out forever. We have no way to excommunicate them; they are our brothers forever. We must realize that to divide the church according to doctrines will not work. Suppose a brother in the church at Sian is a vegetarian. What should we say? We can only ask one question: Has this person been saved? If he has been saved and continues his diet of vegetables, we must allow him to do so. In other words, he has received the same life; therefore, regardless of his preference, we have to receive him. We must help those who are weak in the faith with the teachings of the Bible, not separate from them by forming another church.
Today, the so-called denominations have been brought forth as the result of division over doctrines. People take a doctrine from the Bible, preach it, and form a denomination around it. Consequently, there is the Pentecostal Church, the Lutheran Church, the Quakers, etc. The Quakers stress a gesture (quaking), the Lutherans a doctrine, the Presbyterians an organization, and the Congregationalists an independent congregation. These are not the work of the Lord but the result of man’s ideas which have divided the children of God into so many denominations.
Many think it is good to have denominations because it is convenient. Brothers! if you asked me whether or not I like denominations according to the flesh, I would say, “Yes, I like them, because everything is clear-cut. Those who like to speak in tongues can go to the Tongues Church, those who like independent congregations can go to the Congregational Church, and those who do not like sprinkling can go to the Salvation Army.” But the Bible teaches that there should be only one church in each locality. In Corinth there is only one church, in Ephesus there is only one church, and in Shanghai there should be only one church. This way is not convenient because everyone must love all of the brothers! Loving many brothers who are not like us causes much friction and many lessons. You have your proposals, and I have my proposals; you have your ideas, and I have my ideas. It is very convenient for you to have your church and for me to have my church. It is not so convenient for us today; to be together in one church means that we have to love one another. With many difficulties there are many lessons, but with more difficulties, there also is the need for more love for one another. Even though we are unhappy, we still cannot escape. Whether or not we like it, we still must be brothers together. We must overcome the carnal by the spiritual, conquer all differences by love, and cover all difficulties by grace. Otherwise, the church cannot succeed.
Holding Hands over the Fences Not Being Unity
Since people already have the denominations today, what should we do? We have already testified that it is not good for God’s children to have denominations and divisions. God’s children must not form divisions; rather, God’s children must love one another and be together. We have been saying this for thirty years since 1921. Is this word effective? Yes. Although we have met much opposition from the beginning and are still meeting some today, the opposition is getting weaker and weaker. At the beginning they tried to defend the denominations. Today they have become much weaker. Now they have come up with another way, saying, “We want to have a spiritual fellowship.” As we have seen, this spiritual fellowship is the result of two factors. The first factor is state churches, in which a small church was found within a large church, a true church within a false church, a church of reality within a church of externality. The second factor is divisions caused by the differences in doctrines. Now some seek a middle road, that is, having “spiritual” fellowship with one another. Let us see if this “spiritual” fellowship is right or wrong.
“Spiritual” fellowship is certainly an improvement upon no fellowship among the denominations. Thank God! The situation in China through these many years has certainly changed, but can “spiritual” fellowship replace the fellowship of the church as ordained in the Bible? What they call “spiritual” fellowship is not real fellowship; they only borrow the term. For example, here we have several cups. God’s purpose is that all should be united as one cup, but they have made the mistake of dividing themselves into many cups. “Spiritual” fellowship is for the purpose of strengthening the fellowship in the denominations. In denominationalism I have my cup, you have your cup, and he has his cup. “Spiritual” fellowship is a stretching out of our hands over our cups to hold each others’ hand “across the fence.” Separation by fences is denominationalism. Holding hands over the fences is “spiritual” fellowship. There is still sectarianism despite a desire for fellowship. If we do not hold hands over the fences, however, we are sectarian and denominational. According to the teaching of the Bible, however, there should be no sects, no denominations. Yet today there are brothers who want to keep the denominations, even though their consciences bother them that there is no fellowship. Consequently, they stretch out their hands over the fence to hold hands on the other side. This is the doctrine of the so-called “spiritual” fellowship today.
Concerning this matter, I feel quite heavy within. Brothers, let me say one word: If denominations are scriptural, we must pay any price to maintain the denominations. If it is God’s command, who can nullify it? We must learn to follow God, not man. However, if the denominations are wrong, we must abolish them to the root. We cannot confess that the denominations are wrong on the one hand and encourage them on the other hand. We cannot say that denominations have no standing on the one hand and maintain them on the other hand. Since the denominations have no standing, we have to break them down and abolish them. We cannot covet fellowship on the one hand and have fellowship over fences on the other hand. If we really desire fellowship, we must break down the fences and have fellowship. If we want to serve God and feel that all God’s children should have fellowship, we must tear down all the fences to have fellowship. If the fences are right, then we must build fences, not only ten feet high, but ten thousand feet high. We must be thorough and absolute before God. If the denominations are right, we must exert one thousand times the effort. This is proper. If the denominations are wrong, then it is proper for us to tear them down. If we feel that the denominations are wrong, yet want to keep the fences and shake hands over the fences, this is not the principle for serving God. The basic principle for us to serve God is that if we feel the denominations are right, we must support them; if we feel they are wrong, we must break them down. If we want to support the denominations on the one hand and try to break them down on the other, what could we hope to accomplish?
You must come to the place of showing others that their actions are not according to God’s will. Speak for yourself. If you feel the denominations are right, you should help them. If you feel the denominations are wrong, then please tear them down. Do not merely pull the fences lower; tear them down completely. If the denominations are right, you must build the fences higher, so that no one can cross over, and so that everyone is clearly divided. This matter must be thorough and absolute. Keeping the denominations on the one hand, and feeling that they are wrong while trying to repair them on the other hand is absolutely not God’s way. You know God; you have read the Bible—have you ever seen God wanting men to repair something? This is what is done by those who lack the courage to answer God’s demand and listen to God’s Word. They are paying half or less than half the price; they are seeking some bargain. They hold out their hand of fellowship while keeping the fences of division. I would like you brothers to see this matter clearly. A basic principle of Christian behavior is that we must pursue every matter thoroughly and absolutely. Then we can solve the problem.
For a clearer understanding, I will give an illustration. The Bible shows that God accepted Abel’s offering but not Cain’s (Gen. 4:2-7). Cain was a farmer and cultivated the soil. This is what his father did when he was in the Garden of Eden. When his father tilled the soil in the Garden of Eden, he brought the produce of the land and offered it to God. Even though Cain was outside the Garden of Eden because of sin, he tilled the soil as before. He received produce from the land as before, and he offered it to God as before. God not only refused to accept him, but also was displeased with him. Some people ask, “Why?” This is very simple and has but one significance: What man did before he sinned was acceptable to God, but nothing can be worse before God than to do the same thing after man sinned. Suppose that at eight o’clock each evening a child wants his mother to prepare a snack for him before he goes to bed. But one day he causes some trouble, and his mother has to apologize and pay for damages. What would happen if he asked his mother to prepare a snack for him as usual as though nothing had occurred? What would you say? If the child had been crying and was upset over his actions, you might not feel too bad. But if he acts as if nothing has happened, you would feel very bad. If a child is not bothered after making trouble, when he grows up he may even kill people and not be bothered. Cain was just like this. What he had done before, he continued to do in the same way after having sinned. He continued to offer things to God as though nothing had happened. He considered committing sin a small matter; he did not think it was anything serious. Abel was accepted because he acknowledged that he was outside the Garden of Eden. His offering acknowledged that he had sinned and that his present situation was different from what it had been in the past.
We are afraid of frivolous people like Cain; this kind of people cannot serve God. This is a basic principle. They say, “We are in the denominations. The denominations were not formed by us; they were formed by our forefathers. We bear some responsibility in them. We cannot say, ‘Good! Let us be united tomorrow.’ This is impossible. What about the denominations we are in?” God wants the church to be united, but denominations divide it! When one begins to be conscious that it is wrong to be divided in this way, he must confess that this is wrong before God; he must tear it down. He should say, “O God, although this denomination was not formed by me but by my forefathers, I am sinful as long as I am a part of it. This is not just a personal matter; it involves the whole church of God. This is sin. Today I would ask You to tear it down; today I would declare that there is something wrong in it.” This is the right way to act. Suppose I form a denomination and afterwards realize that something is wrong and try to ameliorate it by saying, “Let us have fellowship.” I am afraid of this kind of frivolous and light-minded behavior. This is Cain’s behavior, not condemning sin after he had sinned but trying to repair the situation instead. This is very unchristian. Brothers, are you clear? Do not think it is all right to not condemn but only attempt to repair it after you have sinned. This is never the expression of God’s life!
For example, suppose I offend a brother by speaking many things behind his back. What should I do when I am rebuked by God’s light? First, I must go to him and confess my sin: “Brother, I have sinned against you by speaking many things to undermine you behind your back. Please accept my apology.” Then it is right for me to express some love to him the next day. What if a man sins against you, steals many things from you, speaks against you, and then behaves as if nothing has happened? He does not confess his sin at all, but turns around to treat you well and to send gifts to you. How would you feel about him? We Christians do have a way of doing things. If we have done something wrong, we cannot change a little without confessing our mistake. It is not right to act this way. This is not the way before God to solve our problems. Such a person should come to you and confess, “Brother, I am wrong. I owe you money, and I owe you other things.” He must first confess his sin before he can show his love. This is the principle by which a Christian may be restored.
The principle here is the same. Today it is not just a matter of whether or not the denominations are right. What matters is that if we feel they are right, we must support them, but if we feel they are wrong, we have to tear them down. We should not shake hands over the fence. If we say it is right to have the fence, then we must build it higher. If we feel the fence is wrong, we must tear it down. We should not have “spiritual” fellowship. What they call “spiritual” fellowship means a fellowship that is not thorough enough. Even though the denominations are wrong, some are reluctant to forsake them; they still want to preserve them while at the same time stretching their hand out for a little fellowship with others. If we fall into this category, it is definitely not of God. I do not know if we see this clearly. We must see this thoroughly before we can go out to deal with the situations in each locality. It is not enough for those who formerly closed themselves from others to merely open the window, shake hands over the fence, and think that this is all they need to do. If this fence should exist, I will build it stronger and higher, but if this fence should not exist, I will tear it down. Keeping different denominations and yet having fellowship is self-deception.
Today in China, there are probably three kinds of unity. The first kind is the unity of the Roman Catholic Church. The second kind is the “spiritual unity,” which means that although the separating “cups” still exist outwardly, one tells himself that such “cups” do not exist in his heart. This seems strange to me! If the denominations are not important, why should people allow them to exist? If the denominations are not important, why do people react when the denominations are touched? It is quite puzzling. If the denominations are important, we should support them; if they are not, we should tear them down. If fellowship is necessary, let us fellowship and not have the so-called “spiritual” fellowship. This is a really good term, but its usage has been spoiled. It is not really a “spiritual” fellowship but only a “half-way” fellowship! If this matter is made clear, I think the problem of unity can be solved easily.
With this kind of “spiritual” unity there is a great problem: Those who advocate “spiritual” unity give their attention to God’s children while neglecting God’s command. In other words, they pay attention to the feeling of God’s children but forget the feeling of God Himself. A man who supports the denominations is one who knows God very little. But many people dare not support the denominations if they are asked. They feel that the denominations are sin. However, because they have a consideration for many of God’s children in the denominations, they are not faithful enough to thoroughly unveil the truth of God to them. They do not show them how the divisions among God’s children are against God’s will. They are afraid that this will create some kind of partition between them and many of God’s children who are in the denominations. If they are asked whether or not they advocate and support the denominations, they would be somewhat bothered because they have studied the Word and received some light. Denominations are condemned before God and rejected by God. Nevertheless, they want to have a “spiritual” unity. This kind of “spiritual” unity or this attitude of shaking hands over the fence is nothing but a method to accommodate, a method to reconcile, and a method of compromise. They dare not utterly uphold the denominations, but they are reluctant to utterly forsake the denominations. Consequently, they allow the denominations to exist and advocate a “spiritual” unity, a “spiritual” fellowship. The real significance of what they call “spiritual” unity is a reluctance to be absolute toward God or to follow His Word. They dare not be absolute toward God for fear of men. The fear of being absolute toward God is today‘s difficulty. In fact, many advocate “spiritual” fellowship and “spiritual” oneness because they cannot come up to the Lord’s demand; they are not absolute toward the Lord. This method is not from the teaching of the Scriptures, but from man’s wisdom and fear.
I believe that when we do not stand on the side of God’s children to excuse their weaknesses and their failures, but stand on the Lord’s side to look at His glory and His holiness, we will see that unity by accommodation is not of the Lord’s will and is not scriptural. We must be very clear about this. If we are clear about this, we can solve the problems.
The Unity in the Scriptures
Now we will look at the third kind of unity, that is, the unity in the Scriptures.
The Inherent Unity of the Body
The Scriptures show us that the church is the Body of Christ and that there is only one Body. The Scriptures also show us that God through the Holy Spirit dwells in the church and that the Holy Spirit is one Spirit. Thus, the Scriptures give special attention to the “one Spirit” and the “one Body” (1 Cor. 12:12-13; Eph. 4:4). We also must give our special attention to this.
The church of Christ is the Body of Christ. If we only consider it as the church, we may not feel that it matters whether or not there is some division, thinking that little harm is done even though there is a little division here and a little division there. If we only consider it as God’s people, again it may not matter whether or not there is some division here and there. If we only consider it as God’s army, it may not matter whether or not there is some division. Finally, if we only consider it as the house of God, it may be all right if it is divided into several houses. But the Word of God also tells us that the church of Christ is the Body of Christ. With a body, division is absolutely impossible. We cannot separate three members here and five members there and another two over there. It is impossible. Everything else in the world can be divided, but not the body. Once the body is divided, it becomes a corpse. Once the church is divided, the world only has the corpse of Christ, not the Body of Christ. It is a serious matter to God when the church is divided. The children of God cannot be divided, just as the body cannot be divided. The church cannot be divided. Yet today, God’s children have become insensitive to divisions; they do not consider them as a serious matter. Please remember, a body cannot be divided! The church is the Body of Christ. In nature it is the Body, and one Spirit dwells in it. Therefore, the unity of the church in the Scriptures is the unity of the nature of the Body, which is indivisible.
Today we want to ask one question: Since the Bible shows us that the unity of the church is the unity of the one Holy Spirit dwelling in the one Body, how can it be expressed?
Not One Church, but Seven Golden Lampstands
The Roman Catholic Church tells us that since the Body of Christ is one, we should only organize one church on the earth. We have already seen that this is not the teaching of the Scriptures. The Scriptures do say that the Body of Christ is one, but they never require the church on the earth to become one like the Roman Catholic Church. Otherwise, the word churches would be a great mistake and the Scriptures should not contain such a term. We cannot say churches and also say one church. Since the Scriptures speak of “churches,” we know that God has no intention of uniting all the churches on the earth into one church. Furthermore, the apostles in the Bible never organized one church. They established churches in many places, and they established one church in each city. The Holy Spirit did not lead them to establish just one church. One worldwide church is only the opinion of the Roman Catholic Church; the unity of Roman Catholicism is manmade, not scriptural.
Let us look at the Scriptures again. We see the outward appearance of the church on this earth, which might be wrong. By the outward appearance alone, it may not be easy to understand whether the church on the earth should be many churches or one church. The best way is to go before the Lord and see how the Lord looks at the churches on the earth. This cannot be wrong. Thank God! According to the Scriptures, the church in each locality has a representative before the Lord. This is the preciousness of Revelation 1—3, which shows us the “seven churches in Asia.” This does not mean that only seven churches existed on this earth but that these seven were representative examples. Revelation 1—3 shows us how the seven churches in Asia were before the Lord in heaven. There were seven golden lampstands placed before Him. Do you see? The churches on earth may be wrong, entirely wrong, but the churches in heaven, the churches before the throne, the churches before the Lord, cannot be wrong. Saying these churches are wrong is blasphemous and terrible!
How were the seven churches in Asia before the Lord? They were seven golden lampstands. In other words, for every church on the earth, there is a golden lampstand in heaven. These seven churches were in seven different localities: Ephesus was a locality, Smyrna was a locality, Pergamos was a locality, etc.; there was a total of seven localities. There were seven lampstands in heaven because there were seven churches on earth. It is not God’s will to unify the churches on earth into one church. If it were God’s will to unify all the churches on earth into one church, then God in heaven would have only one lampstand, not seven. Brothers, this is very clear. We must think, and the Lord causes us to think. If we would just think a little, we would realize that if the Lord has only one church on earth, He would have only one lampstand in heaven. There are seven lampstands, however, and they are seven churches in seven localities. In each locality there is a lampstand. It is obvious to us that God’s purpose is not to unify the churches into one church.
The term lampstand is very familiar to us; it is also found in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament one lampstand with seven branches was placed before God, signifying that all the Israelites were united as one nation. God did not want the nation of Israel to be divided into two nations. The division between the nations of Judah and Israel was not pleasing to God, because before God they were one. Dividing them into two was sin; therefore, Jeroboam sinned. But in the New Testament there is not one lampstand with seven branches, but seven different lampstands. In other words, God’s original thought concerning the church is to have the respective churches standing before Him independently.
Do you see? There is not one lampstand with seven branches, but seven lampstands. The Lord was walking in the midst of these seven lampstands. They were placed there side by side, and the Lord walked in their midst (Rev. 2:1). If it were one lampstand with seven branches, the Lord could not walk in their midst. Therefore, in spiritual reality there are seven different lampstands before God, not seven lampstands united as one lampstand. This signifies that God has no intention of uniting the churches on the earth into one church. God never had such an intention.
In other words, God’s ordained will concerning the nation of Israel is different from that concerning the church. God’s ordained will concerning Israel is that it might be one nation on the earth, not two. God appointed only one place for the whole nation of Israel to worship, which was Jerusalem. The people of Israel were to go to Jerusalem every year, not to any other place. They set up Bethel, but this was not pleasing to God. It was a high place, not God’s center. Today God does not desire that the churches on earth be unified and take Rome as a center like Jerusalem. Today, there are seven different churches. Therefore, the unity of the Body of Christ does not mean that the churches on earth must be formed into one church. The Bible does not contradict itself. The Bible shows us that there is only one Body of Christ. The Bible also shows us that God does not want the churches to be unified into one church on the earth. The unity that God desires is not that the churches should be combined into one big church and formed into one great unity.
We are studying this matter step by step. We have just seen how the Bible speaks concerning the Body and the church. The unity spoken of in the Bible does not refer to the unity of one big church. To what then does the unity of the Body, which the Lord desires, refer? It must refer to something else. The unity of Catholicism cannot be applied; it is not of God. This is the first point.
Once There Is a Denomination, There Is a Division
Now we will look at the second point. Our brothers say that we should have a “spiritual” fellowship, a “spiritual” unity. Does the unity of the Body of Christ refer to the “spiritual” unity as advocated by the brothers in the denominations today? It is half “yes” and half “no.” The Bible clearly shows us that God’s children should not be divided, but the denominations are obviously divisions. Once we have a denomination, we can see a division. As long as a division exists, do not talk about “spiritual” unity! This behavior lacks thoroughness, as we have already mentioned. We cannot advocate unity on the one hand, yet advocate denominations on the other hand. We cannot keep the divisions on the one hand and talk about unity on the other hand. Just as in the illustrations concerning the cups, the lower half of the picture—the many cups—is wrong, while the upper half of the picture—hands stretched out in fellowship—is right. I think it is clear enough that the Bible says denominations are wrong. Galatians 5:19-21 even lists denominations (sects) as a work of the flesh: “And the works of the flesh are manifest, which are such things as…factions, divisions, sects.…”
How does God want us to manifest the unity of the Body? The unity of the Body is not the unity of the whole earth, like the uniting of many churches into one united church; neither is it staying in the denominations and talking about a “spiritual” unity. What is the unity of the Body as spoken of in the Bible? I would like to spend some time to study this matter with you.
The Church Spoken of in Ephesians and Colossians Being Universal Both in Space and in Time
Two Epistles in the Bible especially speak about the church: Ephesians and Colossians. Everyone who studies the Bible knows that the church spoken of in Ephesians and Colossians is the “one church,” which is the unique church of God. This church not only refers to the church on the earth, because even though the church on the earth is broad enough to include everyone according to space, it can only include a section of the church according to time. Suppose five hundred million people are saved on the earth today. The church in the books of Ephesians and Colossians includes more than these five hundred million people. These five hundred million are only the believers in 1951. Before this, in 1950, there were believers who had died. Even in 1951, some believers died before the counting took place. There were also believers who died before 1950, say in 1051. The brothers and sisters in the apostle Paul’s time no longer live on this earth today. In other words, the church of Christ in Ephesians and Colossians includes all the saved ones throughout the whole world, in every nation and at all times, both past and present. It covers time as well as space. This is called the Body of Christ. Today, even if all the Christians throughout the whole world are united together, they would still not be the Body of Christ. Although we are living, many have already died; although we are living, many more will be born. Many brothers and sisters will be saved tomorrow. They are in the Body of Christ; we cannot say that they should not be counted. Therefore, the church in any particular period of time on the earth is not the Body of Christ. Even if all the children of God who are on this earth were gathered together, they would not be sufficient to become the Body of Christ. Spacewise it would be sufficient, but timewise it would be wrong to say that it is the Body, because many generations have passed away. All the believers of past generations, all the believers of the present, and all the believers of the future are the Body of Christ.
Ephesians and Colossians speak of the church in this context. This unity is the right spiritual unity. It is impossible to maintain a church with Paul as an elder and Peter as a pastor, because they have passed away. Hence, this unity is spiritual, and this all-encompassing unity is correct. As long as a person is a brother in the Lord, we have fellowship with him. Even though some brothers have passed away, we are still one with them. We are one with any brother or sister. This is the genuine spiritual unity, which is universal both in time and space.
The Unity Spoken of in 1 Corinthians and Philippians Referring to the Unity of the Church in One Locality
Although we acknowledge the fellowship and unity of Ephesians and Colossians before the Lord, we must remember that this kind of fellowship and unity can easily become idealistic. It is quite possible that we can advocate the unity of the Body on the one hand, yet actually be for the second kind of unity, whereby both denominations and unity are advocated at the same time, on the other hand. Before the Lord, we need to see that the unity of Christians in the Bible is not spoken of in just the Epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians but also in two other Epistles: 1 Corinthians and Philippians. The unity of Christians in these last two Epistles also refers to the unity of the Body.
The unity spoken of in 1 Corinthians clearly does not refer to unity that is universal both in space and in time but to unity of the church in Corinth. I think this word is clear enough. There were contentions among the brothers at Corinth, not the whole Body of Christ. It only concerned a few brothers who were in Corinth. So when Paul exhorted them to be one, he was merely exhorting them to be one with the brothers in their locality. It was as if he was saying, “All the brothers living in Corinth are the church in Corinth; you must express the oneness of the Body in the locality of Corinth. You must not be divided in Corinth.”
“You” Referring to the Believers in Corinth
First Corinthians 1:10 says: “Now I beseech you, brothers, through the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same things…” To whom does you refer? It refers to the Christians at Corinth, the brothers at Corinth. “…and that there be no divisions among you…” Again, you refers to the Christians at Corinth. “…but that you be attuned in the same mind and in the same opinion.” This also refers to the Christians in Corinth. Here we see one thing: If the unity of the Body spoken of in the Bible is not expressed in a locality, it is not practical. It is easy to say, “We love all the children of God, except the one next door! The children of God are one, including Paul and all those who are not yet born, except a few brothers here in Shanghai!” This is impractical as well as self-deceptive. We cannot talk about the unity of the Body and say that we are one with everyone except with the few brothers who live together with us in the same place! According to Paul, the minimum requirement for speaking of unity is in the context of the local church. If the Christians in Corinth want to talk about the unity of the Body, they should not talk about it in Rome or talk about it in Jerusalem, but talk about it in Corinth. If we do not talk about it in Corinth, it is useless. We are deceiving ourselves. Suppose I live in Shanghai, but I do not get along with the brothers in Shanghai. However, I get along quite well with the brothers in Nanking. This is useless, and I am deceiving myself. The unity of the Body required by the Scriptures has a minimum boundary requirement, which is the locality. The brothers in Corinth must be one with the brothers in Corinth. If they are not one in Corinth, all their words just deceive others.
“Now I mean this, that each of you says, I am of Paul, and I of Apollos, and I of Cephas, and I of Christ” (v. 12). Note the phrase each of you. Who is this? Of course, it is the Corinthians. It would not be right for Paul to speak these words about the brothers in Jerusalem, because the Jerusalem brothers would say that they had not said anything. Neither would it be right if Paul had applied these words to the brothers in Antioch, because they had not said them. Only the brothers in Corinth said them. Here the Lord gives us the light for the most basic form of unity; that is, the believers in Corinth must be one at least in Corinth. If unity in Corinth cannot be realized, they should not talk about unity with others. They must be one at least in one place. Perhaps a brother at Corinth can recite the whole book of Ephesians, saying that we must love one another. Of course, we all will love one another in the “heaven” in the future, but the problem is whether or not we love one another today. We all will have fellowship in the “heaven” in the future, but the problem is whether or not we have fellowship today. What we have today is practical. Today in His Word, God’s minimum requirement for the unity of His children is the locality. If the minimum requirement cannot be met, everything else is false. The brothers who were divided at Corinth said, “You are of Paul, I am of Cephas, he is of Apollos,” and someone stood up to say, “I am of Christ.” While they were contending among themselves, Paul told them they must be one.
Let us see how Paul rebuked them: “And I, brothers, was not able to speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to fleshy, as to infants in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food, for you were not yet able to receive it [at the time when you were first saved]. But neither yet now [after being saved for a long time] are you able, for you are still fleshly. For if there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly and do you not walk according to the manner of man?” (3:1-3). This refers to chapter one. The Corinthians were involved in envy, strife, and divisions; they were fleshly, having the same view of these things as they did when they were first saved. They did not improve at all. When they were first saved, they took milk, but they were still taking milk. If they continued in envy, strife, and divisions, they would be fleshly their whole lives. They would still be drinking milk in their sixties, seventies, and eighties.
The expression of spirituality is in the unity of the church, and the manifestation of the flesh is in the divisions of the church. We cannot call ourselves spiritual and still remain in the divisions. If we are, we are self-deceived. How clear is this word: “For you are still fleshly. For if there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly and do you not walk according to the manner of man?”
Paul also repeated the words of chapter one in the following verse: “For when someone says, I am of Paul, and another, I of Apollos, are you not men of flesh?” (3:4). He was showing them that divisions are fleshly before God, no matter how good they are before man. The mark of spirituality is oneness; the mark of fleshliness is divisions, envy, and strife.
We must notice that Paul did not pay attention to any problem arising between the brothers at Corinth and the brothers at Ephesus, or between the brothers at Corinth and the brothers at Colossae. He did not point out any problems between the brothers at Corinth and the brothers at Laodicea, or between the brothers at Corinth and the brothers at Philippi. Paul only paid attention to the divisions between the brothers at Corinth. They said, “I am of Paul, I am of Apollos, I am of Cephas, and I am of Christ,” but in effect Paul said, “Brothers! You are brothers at Corinth; you must not have envy, strife, and divisions at Corinth.” A boundary does exist. There should not be envy, strife, and divisions in the church at Corinth. To whom does you refer? It refers to the church at Corinth. Unity in the Scriptures involves the unity of the Holy Spirit and of the Body. However, the unity of the Holy Spirit and of the Body has a minimum boundary requirement; that is, this unity must be expressed within a local church.
The “Body” Referring to the Children of God in a Certain Time and at a Certain Place
We have just seen the negative view of division; now let us see the positive view of unity as is demanded in the Bible. “We who are many are one Body; for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17). Here Paul said, “We who are many.…” This includes the children of God at Corinth. This “one bread” is the bread on the table at Corinth. During the breaking of bread at Corinth, a loaf was displayed before the children of God, indicating that though they were many, they were still one bread. In other words, the Body of Christ that the brothers at Corinth should express must at least be expressed at Corinth. Here we must recall the situation at that time. Let us take our mind back to the time at Corinth. When the brothers and sisters gathered together, a loaf was displayed before them, with all the saints gathered around it. Perhaps fifty were breaking bread together; Paul was saying that the fifty, being many, are one bread.
In other words, the Body of Christ has a universal expression: the church; this church is the Body of Christ. But the brothers in each locality also express the Body of Christ. It does not mean that the brothers at Corinth are the Body of Christ, while the brothers at Ephesus are not the Body of Christ. It means that the children of God at Corinth are the Body of Christ; so, both according to the spiritual principle and the spiritual fact, they should express themselves as the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ is the universal church, the church which is in all places and throughout all generations both in space and in time. However, the brothers in a locality must at least stand in the same position, applying the same principle to express the same fact. In other words, the minimum boundary of unity is the boundary of locality. In the locality of Corinth, the unity of the Body, the unity of life, must be expressed. This is very wonderful. The Body spoken of in Ephesians refers to all the children of God, but the Body spoken of in Corinthians refers to the children of God in a certain time and at a certain place. The children of God there and then are also the Body of Christ.
As we continue reading 1 Corinthians 12, we see the matter of the Body again. The one Body with the one Holy Spirit is discussed: “For even as the body is one and has many members, yet all the members of the body, being many, are one body, so also is the Christ” (v. 12). “If the foot should say, Because I am not a hand, I am not of the body, it is not that because of this it is not of the body. And if the ear should say, Because I am not an eye, I am not of the body, it is not that because of this it is not of the body.…And the eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you; nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you” (vv. 15-16, 21). First Corinthians 12 speaks of the Body of Christ in much detail. The Body of Christ spoken of in 1 Corinthians is different from that which is spoken of in Ephesians. As I have said, the Body of Christ in Ephesians refers to the universal church. This is not a problem to most Bible students. But the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12 refers to the church at Corinth. This is because it is different from that which is spoken of in Ephesians. The Head in Ephesians refers to whom? Ephesians 5:23 says, “Christ is Head of the church.” First Corinthians 12 also speaks of the head, but to whom does this refer? First Corinthians 12:21 says, “And the eye cannot say to the hand.…” Here the eye is a member, and the hand is also a member. Verse 21 continues, “…nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.” The head spoken of in 1 Corinthians 12, therefore, is a member.
This statement cannot be used and applied as an illustration in Ephesians—that would be terrible. A parallel cannot be drawn here. If it were, the Head would be in a very low position. The head in 1 Corinthians 12 is but a member, the position of which is different from that of the Head in Ephesians. The Head in Ephesians is absolutely Christ, while the head in 1 Corinthians 12 is one among the brothers who acts as a head. He is but one of the members, not the unique Head. He is low, not high. Thus, for the expression of the unity of the Body, the Bible shows us that locality is the minimum boundary. I hope the brothers and sisters will see that the minimum requirement of unity in the Bible is the unity of locality. God’s children must have spiritual unity in each locality. This is the basic demand of the Bible.
What then is the purpose of God? It is “that there would be no division in the body” (v. 25). Paul said this because of the divisions spoken of in chapters one and three. Paul showed them that having divisions in the locality of Corinth was the same as having divisions in the Body of Christ. Unity must have locality as its boundary. If I live at Corinth, at a minimum I must be one with the children of God in the locality of Corinth; at a minimum I must live out a life that is in oneness at Corinth. I cannot have divisions.
We Must Love the Brothers at Corinth
In chapter thirteen Paul speaks about love. Paul speaks so seriously about love in chapter thirteen because only love is contrary to divisions. Love unites; love does not divide. In Corinth there were envy and strife; so Paul said that love does not envy, does not seek its own things or take account of evil, and does not divide or separate. Paul exhorted the believers in Corinth to at least love one another in the locality of Corinth.
Today a certain kind of condition prevails in the church: People preach the doctrine of loving one another, but they forget about locality. They feel that the locality is not important. Brothers, it is easy to be idealistic when we preach about loving one another but to forget the matter of locality. It is easy to say, “All the brothers and sisters are lovable except the few in Shanghai!” What should we do? The brothers in Shanghai feel this way; the brothers in Nanking also feel that the brothers are good except for the ones in Nanking. Let me tell you that God says to the brothers in Shanghai: Love the brothers in Shanghai first and the brothers in Nanking later. God also says to the brothers in Nanking: Love the brothers in Nanking first and the brothers in Shanghai later. The brothers in Corinth needed to love the brothers in Corinth first and then they could ascend into heaven to see the Body of Christ. First they needed to descend to see the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians before they could ascend to see it in Ephesians. They needed to descend to see the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians because it is much more practical.
If we cannot love the brothers whom we see, how can we love the brothers whom we cannot see? The apostle John said, “He who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). Today we need to add one more word: “If we cannot love the brothers whom we see, we cannot love the brothers whom we cannot see.” Many do not love the brothers whom they see; they only love the unseen ones. This is what is called “spiritual” fellowship because everything that cannot be seen is “spiritual.” If we stand in this position, great difficulties will befall the church. The fellowship among the children of God, the love for one another among the children of God, the care for one another among the children of God, and the oneness among the children of God must start from the locality. Locality is the minimum requirement.
The Demand to Be Like-minded in Philippians
In the book of Philippians Paul also exhorted the brothers to be one: “For your fellowship [oneness] unto the furtherance of the gospel from the first day until now” (1:5). Later, Paul spoke of another aspect in verses 15 and 17: “Some preach Christ even because of envy and strife.…others announce Christ out of selfish ambition.” This was not a universal condition of the church but a local matter in Philippi. Some brothers preached Christ in oneness, while some preached Christ out of envy, saying, “If you can preach, I can too. If you can do it, why cannot I?” So they also preached.
In Philippians 2:2 Paul exhorted, “Think the same thing, having the same love, joined in soul, thinking the one thing.” I would like to point out the phrase that you think the same thing. This does not refer to the universal church. Although the universal church can learn from this instance, this word especially refers to the Philippians, since Paul wrote the letter to the Philippians. The Christians, the brothers, in Philippi needed to think the same thing. It is useless for them to think the same thing as the brothers in the church in Shanghai or the brothers in the church in Lanchow. They have to think the same thing as the brothers in Philippi. This is the commandment of the Bible. Thinking the same thing must have locality as its minimum requirement. If this is lacking, all doctrines are idealistic and imaginary. It is amazing that many brothers are very spiritual in the heavens, but fleshly on earth. Their idea is very spiritual but their practice is fleshly.
Following this, Paul said that if they thought the same thing, had the same love, were joined in soul, and thought the one thing, his joy would be made full.
“Doing nothing by way of selfish ambition” (v. 3a). This word was spoken to the Philippians. The Philippians should not have done anything by way of selfish ambition. Paul brought out the reason for doing things by selfish ambition: Some covet vainglory. These seekers of vainglory are easily separated from the brothers. Those who desire to have glory before man get into trouble with others. Some are proud and esteem themselves highly; they are unable to be one with others. “But in lowliness of mind considering one another more excellent than yourselves” (v. 3b). This will enable us to be one with others. Some care only for their own things and are very selfish; so it is also easy for them to cause trouble. Paul continued, “Not regarding each his own virtues, but each the virtues of others also” (v. 4). This is the reason that many people cannot think the same thing, cannot have the same love, cannot be joined in soul, cannot be one with others. Some care only for themselves, some are proud, some seek glory and desire others to applaud them. These kinds of people can never be one with others. We must learn to be humble, not seeking glory from man, and we must learn to take care of others. Then we can be one with other children of God. This is the scriptural principle, and we need to follow it accordingly.
Paul praised the Philippians for their fellowship (oneness) in preaching the gospel, but in fact, they had contentions. This made the exhortation in chapter two necessary. There were contentions in Philippi not only among the brothers but also among the sisters. In chapter four Paul especially mentioned two sisters: “I exhort Euodias, and I exhort Syntyche, to think the same thing in the Lord” (v. 2). These two names are feminine. We do not know how much of a story lies behind this word; Paul did not reveal this to us. He only said, “I exhort Euodias, and I exhort Syntyche, to think the same thing in the Lord.” This correction shows us on the one hand that there was strife in Philippi, and on the other hand that this strife was limited to this locality because of the names he mentioned. By now I think we should see at least one thing: The unity of the Body or the unity of the Holy Spirit in the Bible refers to the unity in locality. Unity apart from locality is entirely vain. We cannot say that we are able to be one everywhere except in our own locality.
The Church in the Bible Being Local
Now we shall go on to see the reason we stress the expression of unity in locality. This is because the church in the Bible is local. We have spoken about this for many years and have mentioned it even now a number of times. The church in the Bible is local. A single exception cannot be seen in the whole New Testament. All the churches are local: the church in Jerusalem, the church in Antioch, the church in Corinth, the church in Philippi, the church in Colossae, etc. All the examples in the Bible are local. For example, in the book of Revelation, the churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea are all local. God ordained one church in each locality. The localities and the churches are equal to each other. The countries on the earth are divided into cities; the church of God on the earth today is also divided into cities. In the world there is the locality of Shanghai; hence, there is a church in Shanghai before God. In the world there is a locality of Nanking; hence, there is the church in Nanking before God. In the world there are the localities of Sian and Lanchow; hence, there is the church in Sian and the church in Lanchow before God. As long as there is a place big enough to be a locality, there should be a church in that locality. If our place is not big enough to be a locality, we cannot be a church. Lanchow is big enough in the eyes of God to be a locality; therefore, there can be a church in Lanchow. Before God this matter is very clear.
The Bible determines a locality according to the limit of a city or a village. In 1 Corinthians for example, which we have just read, there is a very good word: “Because of this I have sent Timothy to you, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, who will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, even as I teach everywhere in every church” (4:17). “Everywhere” is the locality; “every church” is the spiritual content. In every locality there is a church. “Everywhere” is divided in the Bible according to a city or a village. The Lord Jesus preached the gospel in every city and in every village (Matt. 9:35); therefore, the unit of locality is the city or village. Paul said to Titus, “Appoint elders in every city, as I directed you” (Titus 1:5). During that time Paul preached the gospel in the cities; he had not gone into the villages. Hence, he did not mention villages. All the churches in the Bible are local. This is the problem today: The unity of the children of God must have locality as its unit. In other words, the minimum unit for the unity of the children of God must be the unit of locality. All the children of God in the same locality must be one. This is the minimum requirement.
There Should Be Spiritual Fellowship between the Churches
Now I wish to discuss a problem which God’s children face in connection with this matter. I have already spoken of the second kind of unity, part of which is right and part of which is wrong. What does this mean? Should there be the “spiritual fellowship” they talk about? Part of it should exist, and part of it should not. The way to fulfill the part that should exist is that there should be spiritual fellowship between one local church and another local church. The Bible shows us that the church is local, so there must be the unity of the church in a locality. Therefore, I have said that if there is no unity in a locality, all other words are vain and self-deceptive. Fellowship among the churches does not mean that a locality neglects its own affairs and takes care of the affairs of another locality. It does not mean that the brothers in Tiensui take care of the affairs of Pingliang but not the affairs in Tiensui. Rather, it means that Tiensui and Pingliang should have fellowship in spiritual matters.
The unity of the church, the unity of the Body, has locality as its unit. But we also must have spiritual unity with brothers in other localities. This spiritual unity is not a unity between one denomination and another denomination, but a unity between one church and another church. This spiritual unity is not a unity between divisions, but the unity between members of the Body. Here are two local churches. Between these two local churches, we should seek the unity of the Holy Spirit, the unity of the Body, the unity in the Lord’s way, and unity in every aspect in order to express the spiritual unity between the churches. If we apply this spiritual unity to the denominations instead of to the churches, this is wrong. It is wrong to place spiritual unity in the context of the sects instead of in the context of the localities. The subject is right, but the application is wrong.
The Unity of Congregationalism
Now let us see the importance of the boundary of locality. Perhaps we first should look at history. We have seen that in the beginning the churches in the Bible were local. Later, these churches were united to form provincial or district churches. Still later, they were united into an international church under the pope. When the churches were harmonious with God’s purpose in the beginning, they were local. Gradually, however, they degraded until there was only one church in the whole world, the Roman Catholic Church. During the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church was broken up. In this breaking apart, the original local churches were not restored. Subsequent to this breaking apart, the international church became national churches with state churches in different nations. There was some improvement, some advancement, at this stage, with the churches being somewhat closer to the likeness of those in the beginning. The state churches later became independent churches. Within a nation, there were scores, hundreds, and even thousands of small churches. These independent churches took another step closer to the situation in the beginning.
We must realize how difficult it was for these independent churches to be established. For example, the church in many nations insisted that sermons could only be preached in holy places. These holy places were the dedicated sanctuaries. John Wesley rose up and said that preaching could be done anywhere. He was greatly persecuted! The state church declared that messages preached in undedicated places were defiled. In addition to the place being dedicated, the person preaching the message had to be ordained; no ordinary person was allowed to preach. This is the reason Darby said that Paul, Peter, and John could not have preached according to this view, because they were not ordained. For the state churches, preaching was serious, location was serious, and setting up new churches was even more serious. Even Luther, during the Reformation, dared not establish a church. It was the political power that forced him to do so. Nevertheless, after Wesley was raised up, the climate gradually changed as independent churches were established. The international church had evolved into national churches, and the national churches had evolved into independent churches.
Among these independent churches, a doctrine that became quite prevalent was the so-called congregationalism, which means that every independent congregation is a church. Who believed in congregationalism? It was the Congregationalists and the Baptists. What is meant by congregationalism? Many children of God among them in their reading of the Bible saw that the churches were all independent of one another. The church in Jerusalem had its own administration, the church in Antioch took care of its own affairs, and the church in Corinth, as well as the church in Ephesus, also had its own administration. Although the church was universal, they thought that each congregation was the unit of church administration. Hence, it was called “congregationalism.” They set up congregational churches with each congregation serving as a church. There was no archbishop above them. Compared with the other independent churches, this was an improvement. Now we see progress in these various stages; the international church improved to become national churches, national churches improved to become independent churches, and some independent churches improved to become congregational churches.
The Mistake of Congregationalism
Congregationalism is actually very close to the Bible, but it goes a little beyond the Bible. The Congregationalist brothers studied the Bible but failed to discover the thought of locality. Jerusalem is a city, not a congregation; Antioch is a city, not a congregation; Ephesus is a port city, not a congregation; Colossae is a city on a hill, not a congregation. They thought that Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, and Colossae were congregations, and they concluded that congregations were independent of each other. Church history tells us that not long after its beginning, the church deteriorated until the time of Luther. Afterward there was a recovery, an improvement, until the stage of the independent churches. From the time of the independent churches, the church went to another extreme of taking a congregation as the unit. This included Congregationalists and Baptists and later even the Open Brethren who also went to the extreme of considering a congregation as the unit.
Now I wish to discuss the reason that congregationalism is wrong. It is the closest to the Bible; yet it is still wrong. The Lord desires that we love one another, receive one another, and avoid envy, strife, and divisions in the same local church. The unity of congregationalism takes the congregation as its unit. This poses a problem in that it is difficult to pin down such a thing as a congregation. There may be one congregation at 145 Nanyang Road and another at 143 Nanyang Road. If I love the brothers at 145 Nanyang Road, I will meet with them. When I disagree with them, I will set up another congregation at 143 Nanyang Road. If we have seen that unity is a matter of locality, we could only go and set up a church in another city, not another one in Shanghai. This is not easy, but still we must love one another. Oh, how great is the Lord’s wisdom in putting us in localities and giving us the locality as the boundary! Only here can we really find the cross to bear and the lessons to learn.
What is the meaning of a congregational church? It means that there can be several congregations within each locality, each having a unity within itself and each independent of the others. This is a very serious matter. The unity of congregationalism is a mistake. The mistake of the international church goes to one extreme, causing many localities to have one church, but the mistake of the congregational churches goes to the opposite extreme, causing one locality to have many churches. The Roman Catholic Church is at one end, with many localities having one church, and the congregational churches are at the other end, with one locality having many churches. This is like a pendulum that swings to one side with many localities having one church and then swings to the other side with one locality having five to ten churches. In the last century the Brethren were raised up, but some of them fell into congregationalism. They were mainly separated into the Closed Brethren and the Open Brethren. The Closed Brethren are still on the side of the united church; the Open Brethren have gone to the other side and become congregations, “chapel” assemblies. They may have one assembly on one street and another assembly on another street, each having nothing to do with the other. This means they have many churches in one locality.
One Locality with One Church
Therefore, we must see clearly before God that in the Bible there is one locality with one church, or in short, one locality, one church. This is the principle in the Bible. If we study the matter of the church, we must be able to understand this principle of one locality, one church. Every mistake comes from violating this principle. One locality, one church is the pendulum. When it swings to one side, it is wrong because it causes three or four localities to have one church or the whole world to have one church. When it swings to the opposite side, it is also wrong because it causes one locality to have several or many churches. There is something abnormal in connection with the locality, or there is something abnormal in connection with the church. In the Bible there is one locality, one church. At the time of the apostles, the population of the city of Jerusalem was about one million. It was one of the most highly populated cities. Many localities in China today are still not as highly populated. At that time three thousand people were saved and then five thousand (Acts 2:41; 4:4). The number of the saved eventually reached several tens of thousands of people (21:20). That was really unusual. Since there was no place large enough for them to meet together, they met from house to house. However, the Bible does not speak of “the churches in Jerusalem.” I doubt whether they could easily find a meeting place large enough for three to five thousand to gather together. It may be that all these people did not meet together even once. It could be that they met in the wilderness; we do not know. Although the city was very large and there were many believers, they were still one church. Hence, the Bible shows us one locality, one church.
We have seen clearly that the Roman Catholic Church has swung to one side with the principle of having one church with many localities. Another group of people are on the other side with the principle of one locality having many churches. In the same locality, you are one church and others are another. This is congregationalism. It is enough to love those in the same congregation and not care for the other congregation. The Open Brethren have gone in the direction of the congregational church; the Closed Brethren have gone in the direction of the Roman Catholic Church.
Thus, we face a huge problem in China. We must maintain a testimony against the work of the Roman Catholic Church on one hand and the work of congregational churches on the other hand. If we are just a little careless, congregationalism will appear. If we are clear that there is one locality, one church, then we will be clear about Roman Catholicism and congregationalism. For instance, Sian is a locality; therefore, there should be one church there. Regardless of whether the church in Sian is good or bad, it is the one church there. If I am right with the brothers in Sian, I am in the church in Sian; if I am not right with the brothers in Sian, I am still in the church in Sian.
Now let us see the consequences of congregationalism. If I am a believer of congregationalism and I am right with the brothers, then I will break bread with them; if I am not, we will break bread separately because you love your group and I love my group. This kind of breaking of bread costs nothing; it is unnecessary to hire a pastor. We can just set up a table as we like and break bread. We can form another church, love one another, wash one another’s feet from morning to evening, have a love feast at every meal, and have very good fellowship. But the Bible says one locality, one church. The Bible says that “we [the saints in the same locality] who are many are…one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17). But what are you? You, being few, are two loaves. You say, “We are one loaf and you also are a loaf”—this is congregationalism. It is a dreadful situation for the church once congregationalism appears. Roman Catholicism over a period of eleven hundred years had but one church. If congregationalism exists for a period of eleven hundred years, there may be hundreds and thousands of churches. Those who like contentions always seek causes of contention. Suppose I am contentious and have found a brother to contend with. The contention will end in a division. Then I will suffer because I will have no one to contend with; so I will look for someone else. This is appalling; the church will not only be divided into many pieces but will also advocate divisions. If the principle is wrong, difficulties will follow: once a disagreement occurs, you will set up a table and another will set up another table.
The Lord has shown us that one locality should have only one church, and one locality should have only one administration. So we must be limited by locality. If any brother is not one with me, I must wash his feet and beg him until he becomes one with me. Here are lessons for me to learn: My temper has to be dealt with; I need to find the reason a brother cannot be one with me and do my best to deal with it; otherwise, there will be no way for us to go on. If we act according to congregationalism, it is very convenient. Once anything disagreeable occurs, I will set up another church. Then in Shanghai there may not only be twenty-four home meetings, but twenty-four churches. Consequently, one locality with many churches will appear. This is a very serious matter. There is a boundary to our unity. The unity of the Roman Catholic Church is against the Scriptures, and “spiritual” unity has come short of the Lord’s goal. The unity in the Scriptures is according to one locality with one church. This makes it impossible not to be one in each locality.
Suppose there are a few brothers with whom the church really seeks oneness. We should find out what their attitude is. Within these few days I have heard someone say, “We can talk and fellowship, even though you can still have your church, I have my church, and he has his church. We all are one; we all stand in our own position to be one with each other. We all have our own elders and deacons, yet we respect one another.” I must tell these brothers emphatically that there is only one church in one locality. These ones’ thought of rallying brothers together from a few denominations in a locality will only please a few churches. You may deal with the past and deal with it quite well with your cleverness, but what will you do with the future? We all will eventually pass away. What would you have the younger brothers do in the future? If our brothers practice congregationalism in every place, tolerating this kind of unity, to say nothing of sacrificing our obedience, what shall we do in the future? We may get by with five congregations today, but there will be some difficulty in the future, and with it a sixth congregation will appear. With more difficulties, a seventh and eighth will appear. What will we do then? We all must see this basic principle. The Lord’s commandment is very clear: On the one hand, He will not allow us to have a united church so that we will not become a power on the earth and among men. On the other hand, He will not allow a church to become several churches in one locality; otherwise, future contentions will be endless.
I would like you to see that congregationalism is the result of brothers seeing the truth in the Bible only in part. There is no congregationalism in the Bible. Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, Thyatira, and Laodicea are all localities. Throughout many years of church history, the Lord’s light has become clearer and clearer: from the international church to the national church, from the national church to the independent church, and from the independent church, somewhat beyond the normal standard, to congregationalism. Within these last twenty to thirty years, the Lord has led us to see the local church. It is clear enough. The church today is taking the apostles’ way. The church is local. We should not be proud to say that this is preached by us. This is the grace of God. God allowed His children to grope for more than a thousand years. Thank God! We have inherited what they gained and have found the way. Thank God! Although Congregationalism is wrong, it is an improvement. They saw that the “one church” of Roman Catholicism is wrong, but their improvement is beyond the standard.
Even such good brothers as the Brethren had contentions because one group of the Brethren took the way of the united church and another group took the way of the congregations. The China Inland Mission also practices congregationalism. Today the most prevailing practice is congregationalism. The little booklet written by Goodman entitled An Urgent Cry is also something of congregationalism. What is congregationalism? It is when there is an assembly on a certain street and also one nearby, each of which does not care for the other, whether the other is doing well or doing poorly. The only unity they seek is a unity within their own assembly. As long as they all can be one with each other, they meet together as one assembly; otherwise, they divide. The loving of one another as advocated by congregationalism is this kind of love; it is not limited by locality and does not attempt to learn its lessons within a locality. This is the reason I have said again and again that the lessons to be learned within a locality are an exceedingly severe matter. We live in this city, and it is not easy for us to move away. The Lord has placed us in a certain locality to thoroughly grind us. We cannot act as we like. Hence, we have lessons to learn and the cross to bear. Otherwise, there is no cross for us to bear; in just a few days we will throw away the cross.
We must see that Paul was against congregationalism in 1 Corinthians. Corinth is a city, and there was only one church in Corinth. “The church of God which is in Corinth” (1:2) is singular according to the Greek text. But how did the Corinthian brothers behave? They said, “I am of Paul, and I of Apollos, and I of Cephas, and I of Christ” (v. 12). In other words, the one church was divided into four congregations. Those of Paul loved and came together with those of Paul. Those of Apollos found it easy to love and come together with those of Apollos. Those of Cephas came together with others of Cephas. And those of Christ came together with others of Christ and loved one another. But Paul said they were all fleshly, they were all men of flesh (1 Cor. 3:3-4). They were not of Paul, not of Apollos, not of Cephas, and not of Christ, but of the flesh. Paul would not allow them to belong to him, Apollos would not allow them to belong to him, Cephas would not allow them to belong to him, and neither would Christ allow them to belong to Him. They belonged to the flesh. There can be only one church in a city. The desire to be divided into parties or sects within the church is all of the flesh. According to the Bible, we should maintain nothing less than the unity of a church in one locality. Any unity smaller than this is inadmissible.
If we see this accurately before the Lord, we could say a very precise word to the brothers in the denominations. For example, in Pingliang and in Tiensui there can be only one church in each locality. Show them the Bible, regardless of which verse you use about the church, and ask them whether or not the church is local. In the past there was Corinth; today there is Pingliang. This transition is quite reasonable. In the past there was Ephesus; today there is Tiensui. This is also very reasonable. In the past there was one church in a locality; it should not be changed to several churches today. I know that many brothers are turning back to congregationalism today. Not long ago brothers in Shanghai advocated home churches. Quite simply, this is still congregationalism. Hence, we all must be clear to maintain one locality, one church. The pendulum should not swing to one side or to the other. According to the definition of a home church, each home meeting is a church. Thus, we have “churches” in Shanghai. If this could be so, then not only would there have been seven churches in Asia, but there could have been four churches in Corinth. There could be seven churches in Asia because Asia was a province; but there could not be four churches in Corinth because Corinth was a city. The Corinthians said, “I am of Paul, and I of Apollos, and I of Cephas, and I of Christ”; therefore, Paul said they were fleshly. The church is only one; it is impossible to have four churches in one locality. Once this problem is solved, all other problems are solved.
We Must Fear More to Found a Church than to Do Anything
Finally, we must pay attention to another problem. We have seen that the unity of the Body is expressed in the locality. If we do not pay attention to the unity in the locality, then other kinds of unity are vain words because they are not found in the Bible. Unity must be expressed in locality; otherwise, it is vain to talk about it. Unity must not wait until we go to heaven to be realized because we will all be one in heaven. Unity is being one with the brothers around us today. Otherwise, the error of congregationalism will follow. Those in the Roman Catholic Church have learned something about the church, but they have applied it incorrectly. Everyone in the Roman Catholic Church has seen that the church is one, but they are mistaken about the boundary. They think that there is only one church on the earth. What about us? In one point we are the same as they because we have seen that the church is one. However, they have one church for the whole earth; we have one church for each locality. Since Roman Catholicism believes that there is only one church in the whole earth, they have learned the lesson of not setting up another kind of church. This is a good point. No matter how great their difficulties are, they still stay together and dare not divide. Since they have seen that the church is one, they feel that they would be sinning against the Lord if they brought forth divisions. Today as we learn the same lesson, I expect to see the same kind of result, namely, that we will also not dare to set up other churches, but instead remain with the brothers to learn the same lesson.
I do not know how to speak to the brothers today. I feel we should learn our lesson so well before the Lord that we can do anything except set up another church. When we move to a locality, we may have the liberty to found a school, a hospital, a seminary, a corporation, or a factory. We may have the freedom to do anything. Even if it is not of the Lord, this is not the greatest sin. I am not saying that we should be disobedient to the Lord’s will, but I am saying that such a mistake is not the greatest one. Certainly, however, we should never go out to set up another church. Setting up churches according to our own wishes is the greatest sin. We must fear founding a church more than anything else.
Brothers, do we see the seriousness of this matter? Nothing is worse than setting up a church at will. We can found anything, but we must never establish a church in this manner because this involves the problem of the Body of Christ. We must be clear about this matter before God.
Wherever we go, we first must find whether or not a church exists in that locality. It is not a matter of whether or not the church there is strong. That is another matter. It does not matter whether or not the church there is spiritual. That is a secondary matter. If there is a denomination at this end or a Roman Catholic Church at the other end, if there are many churches in one locality or one church in many localities, then there is not a church in that locality, and we can set up a church there. Because the church is local, it is neither congregationalism nor unionism. If there is a local church in a locality, we must not set up another. We must fear setting up another table for the breaking of bread. This is a terrible thing.
My heart is aching today because of those who have read some of our books and have seen a little about the truth of the church and then say, “Let us meet together.” Brothers, it is not so simple! We cannot set up a church loosely at our pleasure. First, we need to see whether or not a church exists in our locality. If a local church already exists, then we must communicate with them even if we are unwilling. If there is a denomination or a sect, we cannot join it because we cannot stand in the denominations. But if there is a local church, we cannot set up another one under the pretense of helping it, even though we see some faults in it. We can only help it through teaching, not through setting up another church. My heart grieves because many people are not afraid of setting up another church. They presume that this is a very simple matter and that they can immediately set up a church after discussing it with three or four others. Brothers who are somewhat gifted, who have some scriptural knowledge, and who are capable in preaching, think that they can set up a church. I may have some trouble with my brothers, and it would not be difficult for me to go out to preach, to set up the Lord’s table, and to build a meeting hall. But I could never do this, because the church is one in each locality.
Therefore, brothers, we must be brought to the place today that we would never commit the sin of dividing the Body of Christ. There is only one Body of Christ. I do not want to be such a carnal person, a person of the flesh, causing divisions. When the brothers all stand in this position, our learning will increase and our spirituality will increase. We will be led to the pathway of the church, and all the brothers and sisters will have the real unity—not a big, outward unity that is obscure within, neither a “spiritual” unity that allows us to remain in divisions.
The booklet The Urgent Cry speaks of the unity in Christ that exists for one week every year at the Keswick Convention in England. I wish to ask, however, about the other fifty-one weeks of the year. If we are one in Christ, we should be one throughout all fifty-two weeks of the year. If we should be divided, then we should be divided all fifty-two weeks. But the strange thing is that the unity at Keswick lasts one week out of the year. Then everyone returns to the divisions. Some brothers still regard this as an example of unity. However, if we should be divided, we should be divided all the time. If we should keep the unity, we should keep it all the time. Either we unite or we divide. If we can only be united for a week, while being divided for the rest of the year, we would rather stay at Keswick every day and never leave. We must see a thorough and absolute unity, not a so-called “spiritual” unity. The term is good, but it is applied in a wrong sense. The unity we see is the unity of the Body of Christ expressed in the locality. This expression in the locality, however, stumbles many people. This is a great test. Of course, if God were to remove the word locality, then everything would be easy. We could hold a few meetings for everyone to come together and converse and then return to the divisions.
I wish the brothers in China today would see that the church is local. Later, by God’s mercy, we may have several hundred or several thousand local churches raised up. The churches may also spread to foreign countries, to turn back to the Western world from where the gospel came. I hope our brothers in China will not be influenced by congregationalism. There is nothing in congregationalism but one word—division. It divides a locality into many divisions. I hope the brothers and sisters will have a fearful heart in setting up new churches, daring to do anything but set up a church. We must seriously see that the Body of Christ is expressed in the locality. Of course, we cannot force others to take this way. If there is a denomination in a locality, that is another matter. If there is a division in a locality, that is also another matter. But if there is already a church in that locality, we must not establish another church. If we do this, I think the church in China will have a better way to go on.
A Problem concerning Unity
A brother asked, “As the word concerning the unity of the church goes out from us at this time, people may very easily misunderstand that we are asking others to unite with us. Why do we not unite with them?”
In order to answer this question, we must let them know the basic problem: Before the Lord we can yield in certain things, but there are other matters in which we can never compromise. What are the things concerning which we cannot compromise? They are the teachings of the Bible because they are the Word of God. Even if we want to compromise, we still cannot. It is not just a matter of saying things one way as opposed to another; we cannot alter the Word of God. In what things can we yield? We can yield in our own position, but toward brothers who are in the denominations, whether in a congregational church or a united church, there are things which we cannot compromise. In these things we should stand firm and should not compromise. However, in things in which we can give in, we should yield because we must seek unity.
There are two points in which we cannot compromise: 1) Denominations are sin; hence, we cannot compromise in this. God said that divisions (sects, denominations) are of the flesh. We cannot say that divisions are spiritual. If we are not faithful to the Lord, we are not His servants and cannot preach His words. Denominationalism is always to be condemned. This is the negative aspect. 2) We must ask them to acknowledge that the church is local. This is the positive aspect with which we can never compromise. There should be only one church in each locality, not several churches. This is the Word of the Lord, and we have no authority to alter it. We cannot change one or the other. Once the problem regarding the Word of the Lord is settled, there is no problem whether you should unite with me or I should unite with you. This will not involve the Word of the Lord; it will only involve our position. If one considers only his position, he is wrong and is not the servant of the Lord.
If others are united with us today, how about divisions that may occur in the future? Since they have just started to walk this way, it may be quite easy for trouble to arise again. For those who have done something once, it is extremely easy to do it again. For those who have walked in the way of denominations, it is very easy to walk in that way again. It is not that we do not trust our brothers but that they must condemn denominationalism as sin. Then God will deliver them out of it. If they do not condemn the denominationalism as sin, even though they have come out of it, trouble will arise in the future. Furthermore, if we maneuver to attain unity, problems will arise. We must not relax these two points: Denominationalism is sin, and the church is local. We can tell these ones that we have been walking in this way for thirty years and that we hope they also will walk together with us.
On the other hand, it is all right for us to consider ourselves as not having walked in this way and starting all over again. In spite of our history, it is all right for us to join others. The Word of the Lord is the Lord’s and we cannot give it up, but we can give up our history. The church is local and denominationalism is sin; we cannot relax on these two points. However, we can have a new start tomorrow in regard to our position. If we reject the denominations and they reject the denominations, then we can unite together to become the local church. How about that? Our history is something we can give up, and we can start all over again. We can say that they are not the church and that we are not the church, but that tomorrow we all will be the church. How about this? We will give up anything that can be given up, but the Lord’s Word cannot be given up; we cannot relinquish it. This problem is easily settled; this is not a difficulty.
As to the administration, there also can be only one in each locality. Congregationalism has several administrations in each locality. Acts 14:23 says that Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in every church. If this were the only record in the Bible regarding Paul’s action, people could say that it is possible to have several churches in one locality and elders in each one of these churches. However, if we read Titus 1:5, we will see that the situation is different. Paul said, “Appoint elders in every city.” When we bring these two texts together, we will see that they are very specific. One text says “in every church”; the other text says “in every city.” Therefore, elders are ordained for every church, and the city is the boundary for the elders’ administration in the church.
Many brothers and sisters think that having unity with us is only a spiritual matter and that their administration will still be independent. This is not the teaching of the Scriptures. Every locality must have only one church and only one administration; it is impossible to have several churches and several administrations in one locality. Since this is a very important matter, we must be clear about it. There can only be one administration in one city, not several administrations. If we are clear about this, there will be little problem. Otherwise, when we have trouble in one meeting, we will go to another meeting. If one meeting does not receive us, we can go to another meeting on another street and be received. If the children of God have seen the unity of the church, the brothers and sisters will be one not only in fellowship but in administration as well.