Just as individual believers have been carrying the torch of the truth, so do assemblies of the Lords people today in many places all over the world. Some are thriving, with large numbers of people being reached and saved, whilst others are struggling and finding that response to the gospel is meagre to say the least.
In the book of Revelation we read of golden lampstands which the Lord had put in seven different places in Asia Minor long ago, testimonies to Him in the world of darkness, ignorance and superstition all around them. These churches were all distinct, with different needs, difficulties, and problems which required attention. Some were burning brightly, others much less so.
They were each autonomous, responsible to their Lord alone. None of them was asked to pass judgment on, or give opinions about, the others. To them all He said, "I know thy works ". Of course these were not the only churches in that part of the world, just seven which were chosen to receive a particular message from the Lord.
Lamps in the Dark Ages
From then until now, believers in different parts of the world have gathered in such churches according to the Lords command to remember Him and to proclaim the gospel of His grace. At times over the centuries these autonomous, scriptural churches ran into grave difficulties. The lamp burned dimly. History tells us that the union of church and state led to formal organisations of churches which took over, and forcibly suppressed those who did not conform. Man-made religion and new superstitions spread through all the "Holy Roman Empire" which covered most of Europe. The church grew rich and corrupt, the people poor and deprived of true spiritual guidance. Kept in ignorance of the Scriptures, the majority just accepted and submitted to the popular dogma of the Church of Rome and its arrogant teachers, for not to do so was dangerous. It was a matter of conform or be cut off or even (and often) killed.
On the other hand, a few educated individuals managed to obtain copies of at least part of the New Testament. Convictions based on these led them to follow and practise apostolic teaching. Inevitably this resulted in head-on conflict with established religion which ruthlessly persecuted them, forcing them into hiding and secrecy. There they nevertheless obeyed the Word of the Lord, practising believers baptism, weekly observance of the Lords supper, and preaching the gospel of repentance and faith in Christ alone for salvation. Little has been left on record of these dear believers for obvious reasons, yet the stories of the Waldenses, the Moravian brethren, the Anabaptists and suchlike in central Europe make stirring and challenging reading.1 The lamp may have been burning low, but the torch was still being carried onwards.
The Reformation and the Great Recovery
Much has already been written about these two events. The first in the sixteenth century made a significant break with the Roman Church, asserting afresh the over-riding authority of the Scriptures with new emphasis on faith not works for salvation. Men like Luther in Germany, Wycliffe and Tyndale in England, Knox in Scotland, and all the brave martyrs who accompanied them, made the great flame burn brightly again.
Then in the early nineteenth century another significant advance was the rediscovery of New Testament truths about church order, prophecy, and the spread of the gospel abroad. Names like Darby, Chapman, Müller, Groves and many others still resonate with us. It looked as if the conditions described in the church at Philadelphia (Rev 3.7-13) were being seen in many parts of the British Isles and simultaneously in some places abroad.
The assemblies today which function according to the New Testament pattern trace their origins back to those days. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries increasing numbers of these torches of truth were lit in countless towns and villages throughout the UK and abroad. Many thousands of souls were saved, baptised, and then gathered into the name of the Lord Jesus alone in independent local churches, meeting in whatever types of buildings they could get or hire.2
The hallmark of the early churches was that "they continued stedfastly in the apostles doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers" (Acts 2.42). Many assemblies today still seek to do this. Their first and founder members saw the truth of the Scriptures, practised it, taught it, and passed it on. This torch of truth has been carried forward and now it has reached us. It has not reached us as a nineteenth century tradition but as the first century doctrine of the Word of God which applies throughout all this age of grace.
Looking back over a century or so, it is apparent that in the UK there have been great changes in assembly testimony. Some assemblies have changed so much it is difficult to recognise them. Some which were strong numerically and spiritually have become small and struggling, and some have ceased to exist. Reasons for this are not hard to find. Some reasons are understandable as employment patterns change and people move from one place to another. Also the advance of secularism and atheism has increasingly hindered the spread of the gospel. Other reasons are painful, as sadly we have to recognise that many divisions and subdivisions, often over trivial personal matters, have weakened or, tragically, even destroyed assemblies. Our record in this area even from early days is not good. It is painful to note how the devil has won victories and many dear saints have been distressed, disillusioned or have lost the way.
Most of us now look back with great respect to those who preceded us in the assemblies where we are, and we thank God for their devotion, faithfulness and above all their example. We remember our guides, those who have spoken to us the Word of God (Heb 13.7). They showed us the way. Many of them brought us to where we are. Will we keep pressing on with the work they pioneered and established not because it was their work or their idea, but the Lords? Can we keep the torch burning?
Our day is quite different from theirs. Society is more apathetic. The tasks are many and our own numbers may even be very few. Our energies decrease as we get older. But God is the same and His Word is unchanged. The same Holy Spirit indwells us, enabling us for the tasks of today. The call to continue has not changed. Lets not think about giving up or closing down if at all possible! Lets keep the torch now in our hands burning brightly to pass on to the next generation until the Lord comes.
The devil is as active as ever "seeking whom he may devour". Influences from the world around are not helpful to distinctive assembly testimony, even the call of some "evangelical" movements. Sadly they help to haemorrhage the assemblies of valuable young people, and even some older ones whom we thought would know better.
Lets make sure we teach especially our young people why we do what we do. Be genuinely interested in them and involve them in the assembly work. We must show them too the clearest of examples of holiness and dedication to God. More than ever we need to foster and develop local gift and encourage its local use. Dont rely just so much and so often on "visiting speakers"!
The command of the Lord is to preach the Word (2 Tim 4.2), to remember Him and show forth His death until He comes (1 Cor 11.26), to love one another with a pure heart fervently (1 Pet 1.22), to speak the truth in love, endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4.3,15). The things which we ourselves have learned from faithful teachers of the Word we are to commit to faithful men who shall be able to teach others also (2 Tim 2.2).
Lets not give up! Let us go on! (Heb 6.1).The Lord said, "That which ye have already hold fast till I come!" (Rev 2.25). Let us not fail in this great task but keep the torch blazing!
1 For example, Millers Church History Vols 1, 2, & 3, Andrew Miller, 1925?; The Pilgrim Church, E H Broadbent, 1931; both Pickering & Inglis.
2 Brethren, the Story of a Great Recovery, D J Beattie, 1940; reprinted 2011, John Ritchie Ltd.