by T. Austin-Sparks
The assembly is spiritual, in that it is entirely outside of this world realm and order. In John 14 the Lord definitely says that He would reveal Himself to His own, and not unto the world. Judas took up that statement and said, “What has happened that You are going to disclose Yourself to us and not to the world?” (John 14:22). Then again He said, “After a little while the world will no longer see Me, but you will see Me…” (John 14:19).
I think that one of the meanings of His forbidding of Mary to take hold of Him when He said, “Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father” is this, that the order is entirely changed, entirely different. What could be in the days of His flesh of a physical apprehension and association, a natural contact, that which is in the realm of human senses, no longer obtains. Everything now is outside of that realm, and outside of that order. So it was that to His own alone He appeared for the space of forty days, with them alone He assembled, in the midst of them alone He was received up. He was moving entirely outside of this world’s scene of things.
It is a strong, definite mark of the true church and of the true assembly that it is with its Lord, quite outside of this world. This world and this order must not on any account be brought into the church or made a part of it, neither must the church move into this world order and become a part of it. Immediately and inasmuch as that clear distinction and division is overridden, the value and the meaning of Christ risen is lost. All that is bound up for His people with His risen life is arrested by those very communications. He has put these asunder, and at the peril of the church they are brought together.
That, of course, works out in many ways. Nothing more fatal to spirituality could ever have happened than that the church should have become a world institution. That is what is the matter, considered at an extreme point. There are a great many who will not have that because they see the error of it, and they will call themselves by names which imply that they repudiate the temporal status and position and office of the church and its world connection, but who at the same time are just as worldly and perhaps more so in other respects than that particular body. The thing works down to very fine points. We are not going to try and analyse it, but simply make the definite statement, because even in a spiritual assembly, where these things are recognised, the peril is never far away of something like this.
What it amounts to is that there must be, on no account whatever, consideration given to this world order for spiritual advantage. No considerations at all must be entertained for the danger of the things of God, so far as this realm of things and this order is concerned. It will rule out a great deal. It will challenge our decisions and our contemplations, and our considerations. What is the motive in adopting any given course, making certain appointments, choosing certain people? Is it because they have something of this realm of things, and of this order which will be an advantage to the things of the Lord? Any such consideration may be a snare, and may be found to violate a basic principle of the very assembly, the very House of God itself.
Resurrection is something altogether apart from this realm and this order. It is something outside, and all that is bound up with resurrection is, therefore, outside, and must come into the church from an entirely different quarter than that of this world and this order of things. In this way the House of God is a spiritual thing, as something apart, and the hand of man as man, the touch of the world, may not rest upon it, may have no place in it. To all such, from centre to circumference, the Lord’s attitude is, “You have no part or portion in this matter” (Acts 8:21).
Having noted that as something which is very distinct in relation to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, forming His church, and which cannot be overlooked, we can pass on.
The assembly as expressing the House of God is spiritual in three other connections. This has to do very largely with its order.
1. In its Membership
On what ground does the membership of the assembly subsist or consist? Spirituality is the governing factor, and it determines relationship from start to finish. There is no other ground recognised by the Holy Spirit and by the Word of God, for membership of the church, the House of God, of the assembly. A roll of membership may be a very great snare. It has no place in the New Testament. How strange it is that words from the New Testament have been taken up and used in connection with things with which they had no connection in the beginning. Take such a phrase as: “the right hand of fellowship”. It is a word used by Paul, “They gave to me the right hand of fellowship” (Gal. 2:9). Now did he mean that they received him into membership of the church? That is unthinkable. No one ever was received into the church or into an assembly by the right hand of fellowship. No right hand of fellowship can ever make a person a member of a spiritual assembly. All that that phrase meant as Paul used it, is that there was a recognition given to the fact that the people concerned were the Lord’s people. “They gave to me the right hand of fellowship” simply means that they recognised me as the Lord’s, and as the Lord’s messenger. You can go no further than that with any right hand of fellowship.
If you have the right foundation in spirituality, even though it be in its earliest and most immature degree and form, nevertheless the right foundation, you have no need of any membership. But if you get to work on things to keep your people together on some other ground, and to get them to take responsibility because of this official recognition, then you had better have a roll. It will become necessary. But a true spiritual background will bear its own fruit, it will secure the strongest fellowship; it will result in the taking of responsibility, it will mean mutual care of one another. There need be no mechanical contrivance whatever in the place of the true fellowship.
Now that is said more by way of illustration than by seeking to criticise. The point is that the membership of an assembly is spiritual in its foundation, in its nature, and if you have not got spiritual people in the assembly you are better without them, and certainly you must safeguard the Lord’s interests from their interference and from their having any place whatever in the ordering or the influencing of the things of God’s House.
This is a law which may be simple, in some senses weak at its beginnings; that is, you may have a babe in Christ, but there is spirituality at its beginning, and a true babe in Christ is one ready to be taught and recognises the need of being taught, and needs to know everything as to walk, and knowledge, and everything else. But this matter of spirituality is the law by which the church grows, and, as we shall see in a moment, everything springs out of it and must do, and if it does not, you have a false formation. We must be very careful as to the ground upon which we come together, and as to that which holds us together.
Just as a roll may be a snare, so may be a confession of faith. You get many people to subscribe to a confession of faith who have no spiritual understanding of what it contains. To them it is a creed. That has obtained right through the dispensation, with very baneful and disastrous consequences in many directions. You can subscribe to the most utter declarations concerning the things of the Lord, and yet remain very unspiritual.
These may be but things presented and emphasised and imposed to constitute something; but the way of the Lord is that people should grow from a beginning into everything that is of Himself. It is no use, even though you might get many people to accept and bow to your presentation of truth, to guarantee that they are spiritually in what you present, you have not secured your end by getting that assent. But even if they cannot, that is no ground for excluding them. It is no ground of excluding people because they cannot at present understand all that you say. Given an acceptance of the Person of the Lord Jesus in all that that Person is, God in Christ, Christ in God, and that on the basis of a spiritual, living, though elementary knowledge of Him, fellowship with Him, union with Him, that is the true beginning of the assembly, and all that is essential. All the rest has to be grown into. Do you accept, do you understand, do you know this truth, or that truth? The answer may be: “No, I do not understand that, I have not yet seen that.” Then we have no right to exclude anybody on that ground, and we have no right to try and cajole them into it, to force them into it by any means. The way into all the truth is to be led in, and that by the Spirit; or to grow into the truth. All that is required by the Lord is an openness of heart, and a responsiveness of spirit, a readiness that, should it be of the Lord, although it may not be at the moment seen to be, it will be accepted willingly. Once there is any movement of the Spirit of the Lord in the heart in that direction there will be no holding back from it; that is, the refusal of truth is not wilful, it is not by prejudice, it is not by the leadership of human judgement, but rather the heart is open for all that is of the Lord, whatever it may cost. Given that there should be the ground of fellowship.
Let us be careful that we do not allow artificial false barriers to come up between us and other children of the Lord because they do not see all that we think we see, and are not just going all the way that we think we are going, have not just reached the point that we think we have reached. It is so easy to say they have not come into the truth yet, and when you have done that you have put a hedge around them and put a label on them and put them on the shelf. That is not the assembly. Membership is governed entirely by spirituality, not by any imposed or artificial instrument.
2. In its Ministry
The ministry of the assembly is also spiritual. Here, of course, Christendom is far from the mark. Those who have influence, whose influence has to be with others in the direction of the thought of the Lord for His people, in our desire that everything should be living in His House, know that this law governs life, that only as things are in accordance with the Lord’s thought can there be life. That is, life is measured by proximity to the Lord’s thought. The Lord’s life may be found in realms where His full thought is not apprehended, only in a limited way. And who shall ever say that anyone has yet known the full thought of the Lord? We are speaking in a comparative way now. We may find life at a point somewhat remote from the full thought of the Lord, but that does not alter the fact and rule out the law that there should be more life, and will be more life as the Lord’s thought is approached more closely. It is not a matter of whether we know blessing in this thing. The question is, How much more blessing could we get if we were more in line with the Lord’s things? People take this attitude that says, Well we get blessing where we are. Yes, that is all right, but could you not have a great deal more blessing? If it is not only a matter of blessing, could not the Lord have a great deal more. So we must never think that because there is a measure of life in anything we have reached the end. The Lord would lead into the greater measure, and as we have said, this is the governing law, that life is in proportion to the measure of the mind of the Lord as expressed anywhere.
Ministry is very much involved in this. Ministry is a matter of spirituality, and ministers are constituted only by spirituality. The great illustration of this is the book of Numbers. The book of Numbers seems to correspond very closely to what came in in the book of the Acts, and especially through the ministry and labours of the apostle Paul. What you have is the whole company of the Lord’s people being ordered as an assembly, and if you notice, the ordering begins with God speaking out of the tabernacle. You look into that closely, and you find that what it really means is God speaking out of Christ. “God… in these last days has spoken to us in his Son…”. God’s speech in Christ, through Christ, is the commencement of the church’s order. He speaks out of the tabernacle; not out of heaven now in the direct sense. God spoke directly out of heaven, directly to Israel in the Mount. What was that for? That was the giving of the revelation of Himself. The result of that was the bringing into being of the tabernacle. In a word, that is the incarnation. When God acts directly from heaven by producing His Son, Christ becomes the heavenly expression of God amongst men. That is the Mount. But then Christ is here, the incarnation has taken place, God has spoken. Now He has to conform a people according to that speech, and it is Christ in the tabernacle, in the assembly, in the House, in the church, and God speaking out of the tabernacle by and through His Son. To have the order of the House of God you have got to have Christ as a Son over God’s House present in it. Christ’s presence is the commencement of the divine order amongst us. He is governing, He is Head, everything is in His hands.
This is not merely technique, it is a living reality. We know in our own personal experience that if the Lord is in us truly, and we know the Lord is in us, and we have a touch with the Lord, that our way, our walk, our conduct is checked up, comes under His hand. The ordering of our life is taken up by Him, and we know it. How is it that we cease to do certain things? How is it that we begin to do certain other things? How is it that there is this changing of conduct by us without anybody saying anything to us? It is because the Lord the Spirit is ordering the House. In exactly the same way the presence of the Lord in the midst of any assembly, any company, is bound spontaneously to reach the heavenly order, if the Lord is having His way. Man does not have to come and impose something. It grows into that order. God speaks out of the tabernacle, out of Christ, and the result is the ordering of the House of God. So, of course, it becomes necessary for us to listen to the Lord’s voice within His church, within the tabernacle, for the putting out of anything superfluous, the putting right of anything that is wrong, for the bringing in of anything lacking.
We have already said that the House of God is a heavenly, spiritual system, and it is this system that is put into operation when the Lord speaks. The sons of Aaron blew the trumpets, and a certain way of blowing the trumpets indicated a certain thing, and there were various ways of blowing those trumpets, and every different way implied a different thing. A loud blast meant one thing, a soft blowing meant another, a repeated blowing meant something else, and so on. Now that is all very well from the Lord’s side, but from the side of the people it was necessary to have spiritual intelligence, otherwise what would happen? Either they would do nothing, take no notice, the trumpets would not mean anything to them, or they would do the wrong thing because they had misunderstood the trumpet; or they would be so divided up in the apprehension of the thing that they would all be doing different things. It was necessary for them all to be governed by one spirit of intelligence.
That is Pentecost. That is the New Testament church: having the same mind, all speaking the same thing. How? By being governed by the one Spirit. The result of that is in living fruitfulness, not by arranging a programme that you agree all to speak on the same subject, that you just impose things on people. You may all, of course, say the same thing, all be dwelling upon the same theme, but there may not be that livingness of the Spirit, that fruitfulness, without any arrangement, and without any conference. The one Spirit speaks through one and another, giving the same emphasis. It leads things away from man to the Lord. It leads to worship. That is the governing law of the Spirit, to bring everything to the Lord. Trumpets were governing factors as to the mind of the Lord.
That is how the Lord would have it amongst His people, and, blessed be God, this is not an ideal impossible of realisation, this can be known and is known in measure amongst some of the Lord’s people today; and if only in a measure it is actual today, surely it can be anywhere where the Lord has spiritual people.
Then we were saying this system came into operation. He speaks first out of the tabernacle by His Spirit from His Son. But then He speaks to the tribes by representative members. These representative members are gathered into the closest touch with Him. What they are we will mention in a moment, but here is the way. To the tribes the Lord speaks by means of representative members; that is, to use the term in Numbers, “heads of fathers’ houses”. There are responsible ones to the Lord for His people, who have to have that intelligence which the babes may not have, that they may bring the spiritually apprehended mind of the Lord to His people for the ordering of the House. That is what we have in the book of Numbers.
What are these heads? Headship in the mind of God is always spiritual. The head is generated, not manufactured. The head is a living, born one, who has grown up; not an officer appointed. That is a very big difference. Headship is spiritual. He is the head, He is not made head. No one is made head in the House of God. You cannot vote for a head in the House of God, you cannot appoint a head by ballot. These who occupy any such position are that by the act of God, by the walk with God, by the knowledge of God, by the operation of the Spirit of God in them to produce headship, or they are in a false position. The Lord will call right back from anything else if He has His way, if we have become officers in any other way, and when the Lord has His way with us He will work so that He undermines all that we know and bring us down to the place where we cannot be in that place of responsibility only as we have a knowledge of the Lord commensurate with that responsibility.
Therefore ministry is spiritual, not official. You cannot make a minister by any outward activity or appointment. The minister must grow up, must be the product of a walk with God, so that he and his ministry are spiritual. In the New Testament elders were not made: they were recognised. When it says that they ordained elders, it does not mean that they appointed officers as such. They recognised where there was spiritual value, where there already obtained those features of spiritual trustworthiness, spiritual measure, spiritual values, and took account of that, recognised in the midst of the assembly such as having by the Holy Spirit been provided for that assembly as its ministers. That is how we come into any place. As it works one way, so it works the other. If the Lord gets hold of us in the fullest position, He works to bring us into the truth by destroying the merely official, destroying it in such a way as to make us know that we cannot go on because we have not got the resources to go on; He brings an end to that. But it works the other way, that the Lord Himself maintains that ministry; He is the fountain of oil for His own ministry. If at any point you and I cease to draw upon the Lord, and go on with our official position, we create disaster, and we very soon begin to realise that something very serious has happened, and there will be a breakdown. The Lord is the fountain of ministry, and we need the olive tree in order to go on.
The case of Barnabas and Saul is a striking example of this, being what they were, Paul having had such a revelation as he had, and having received such a commission as he received at the commencement, even at his conversion. Paul was such a chosen vessel, and he with Barnabas became just a part of the assembly in Antioch, and stayed there amongst the others as members of an assembly during long months. The Lord the Spirit did not come to them directly and say, “Now, look here, you know what I commissioned you for thirteen months ago; now go out and do it, the time has come for you to take up your office.” He did not leave them with the necessity of announcing to the oversight of the assembly that they were servants of the Lord, and the Lord had told them that they must recognise them as servants now, and they must go out to their life work. It came through the assembly and its spiritual headship: “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Probably the oversight knew who the men were, and what their experience was, but there is the case that it was nothing official, nothing that they could enter upon as an official thing. It had become spiritual in every sense, and the spontaneous result of the Holy Spirit’s sovereignty in the assembly.
These heads of fathers’ houses, and these princes in Israel — now speaking of the type, speaking of what they were literally — were men of dignity, and men of substance, men of wealth, and, while we may not trace those things in the New Testament order, that those who were given ministry and oversight and responsibility were, so far as this world is concerned, men of position, and honour, and substance, and wealth, there is no doubt about it that those were the things in the spiritual direction which marked the servants of the Lord then, and always are the marks of true ministry. There is spiritual dignity, there is spiritual substance, spiritual wealth, so that as the princes in Israel were marked out by the people, were conspicuous amongst them, so amongst the Lord’s people there is no mistaking those who are to take responsibility. They strike upon the consciousness of others, as those who have something of the Lord. So the Lord would have it, and govern everything in this way by spirituality.
This is important, because it requires the upsetting of another system, and it explains how the Lord does things. We have so often found ourselves in the difficult position of being asked why we do not give work, responsibility, ministry, and so on. But that is the old way of doing things, it is not the living way; because anyone has a scope and an opportunity for ministry who has substance. If you have something of the Lord, you have substance, and yours is a life of dignity in accordance with the holy things of the Lord, and there is room and opportunity for that. We put it that way simply to make the point practical. This is the way of ministry. This is according to spiritual value and never by arrangement or organisation. It must be spontaneous, and it must come out and be revealed by the Lord Himself.
We should perhaps be missing something if we did not point out that in the book of Numbers, which is illustrated for us in the New Testament order of the House of God, in the assembly, the ordering of the House came along two lines. Those two lines are represented by Moses and Aaron. Moses and Aaron are only two sides of one person. They are brethren, and they represent the two sides of the Lord Jesus Himself: Moses the administrative side, and Aaron the priestly side. You have them wonderfully combined in the case of the apostle Paul, and you have them wonderfully manifested in the ordering of the New Testament assemblies. I have been reading again Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, and have been greatly impressed again with this very thing, how that for a time he could speak so strongly, so firmly, could be very downright and very straight. He will speak of his coming, and if he comes there will be no weak handling of the situation. But before he has got much further he is saying that he entreats them as a father. He tells them they have many instructors but not many fathers. The two things come in one chapter, and you find Moses and Aaron operating together, the administration and the love.
That has to be in a true assembly. The Lord has to express Himself in that way. The two sides mean this: Moses is really God dealing with man, Aaron is really man coming to God. It is from God to man, and from man to God, and it is very blessed to note that, while God must have things right if He is going to deal with man, He cannot overlook anything that is wrong. He must and He does jealously watch and deal with all sin and all wrong, and so you get administration of the Holy Ghost, the judicial administration of the Holy Ghost, governing a true assembly, and letting nothing go that is evil and wrong. Sooner or later it is brought to book. Yet when that is yielded to, submitted to, when the evil is put away, then you have the other side: there is a clear way to the Lord.
It was in a marvellous way that Paul dealt with that man at Corinth. Who he was I am not sure. Some people think he was the fornicator of whom Paul wrote. What is clear is that he was a violent opponent of the apostle himself, he was one that had opposed in such a way as to make things very difficult indeed for the apostle Paul, probably to turn the assembly aside from Paul, to do much mischief. There were evidently evil things in the man’s life, and so the apostle was dealing with that in writing to the assembly about it, and did not just take up the cudgels for himself, and try to reinstate himself, but he pointed out the evil, and that if there was evil in this man’s life they were altogether wrong in being influenced by him. That influence was against the apostle. How could they accept an influence which was arising from a life that was evil? Paul’s personal acceptance was a secondary thing. They were exhorted to put the evil thing right, and to judge that, to deal with this man, and then Paul was quite sure that they would be all right with him. That is what it amounted to.
Then they judged the man, probably put him out of the assembly, and the Holy Ghost seems to have judged the man, and he seems to have had a very bad time. Then the apostle heard what they had done, and what the man had said, and then he wrote and asked them to forgive him if he were penitent.
Here you see judgement and mercy, here is Moses and Aaron working marvellously in the assembly, wrong being dealt with severely in the assembly by the assembly, and by the Holy Ghost, and it seems that it was an extreme case of evil in the assembly, a very bad case. It does not matter how bad the case was, there is restoration, there is the priestly place to bring back the wrongdoer. Thank God there is always the priest alongside of the administrator.
God always comes to us in the dual capacity. If He must deal with sin in judgement in the assembly, judgement beginning at the House of God, He never ceases to be the priest, keeping the way open for the one to return, to come into full fellowship with Himself and with His own. Let us see that we never finally close the door to anyone. If we do we abandon the ground of the priest. At the same time let us see to it that we do not try to keep on the ground of the priest, to close our eyes to the need of holiness, and righteousness before God, and to forsake our responsibility in the Lord to judge wrong, and to administer.
We can see through all this a little of what a spiritual house, a spiritual state is, and how necessary it is to be spiritual for all this and not official.