In previous articles we have examined a number of basic truths about the local assembly. First, the Lord Jesus owns it. Second, He dwells in it. Third, He designed it. Now we come to a fourth fundamental consideration – He rules it. The Bible teaches that Christ is the Lord of the assembly. Local companies of God’s people are to own Him as sovereign, bow to His authority, and give Him the pre-eminence in all things. In a lawless, chaotic and rebellious world, the local assembly is presently the only sphere on earth where divine rule and authority are corporately acknowledged, and where God’s Word and will are supreme. What a privilege it is to be called to honour the Lord in this unique way.
As Christians in a locality ‘gather to His name’ they collectively come under the lordship of Christ, and are responsible to Him alone as their sovereign Lord. The great ‘local assembly epistle’ of the New Testament, 1 Corinthians, regularly highlights this truth. It tells us that the spiritual gifts used in the assembly are given by “the Lord” (1 Cor 3.5); that assembly discipline is carried out in the name of the “Lord Jesus Christ” (5.4); that the breaking of bread is “the Lord’s supper” (11.20); that the Bible’s instructions about who should participate, and how and when, are “the commandments of the Lord” (14.37); and that the activity of the assembly is “the work of the Lord” (15.58).
Such is the Lord’s authority over each assembly that He will at times intervene directly to maintain its order and holiness. The Bible warns “If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy” (3.17). Examples of such divine intervention are given in 1 Corinthians 11.30 “… many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep [have died]”; and “… great fear came upon the church, and as many as heard these things [the sudden death of Ananias and Sapphira]” (Acts 5.1-11). It is easy for us, in our natural weakness, to become all too familiar with these matters, and to forget the seriousness of our corporate assembly privileges and responsibilities, but who could read these passages without solemnly concluding that, in the words of Henry Hitchman, “… the very last place where we can do as we like is the assembly … In it Christ is Lord, and subjection to Him becomes all saints”?¹
The subject of the Lordship of Christ over the local assembly is an eminently practical doctrine – and supremely challenging to our often inconsistent and undevoted hearts. How should an assembly acknowledge the lordship of Christ? Here are some pointers:
These features, actions and attitudes are indicative of submission to Christ and His Word, and help us understand what it means to be collectively under His lordship. The lordship of Christ also impacts the topic of the design of the local assembly (see last month’s article). If the Lord has expressly revealed His will – in His Word – as to how an assembly should be structured, ordered and led, dare we alter, diminish or add to that pattern? Think of a large mansion in which resides ‘the Lord of the Manor’. Because he owns and lives in the property, nothing happens without his knowledge, his approval or his blessing. Imagine then, if you will, some evening dinner-party guests reconfiguring the layout of the drawing room without his express permission - unthinkable! Likewise, because Christ is Lord in the assembly, may He graciously preserve us from introducing anything inconsistent with His lordship.
But without a Church Council, a Creed or a Confession, how can we know what the Lord requires of us as we gather in His name? Through His Word, the Bible. If Christ is the assembly’s Lord, then His Word is its absolute standard. When Paul said farewell to the elders of the assembly in Ephesus for the last time, he said “I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace” (Acts 20.32). Even though Paul knew that false teachers were soon to cause havoc in Ephesus, he left the elders with nothing but God and His Word. What a powerful reminder of the sufficiency of God’s authoritative Word for all the assembly’s needs.
But what is to be done when serious doctrinal or moral evil rears its ugly head in the local assembly? How should such cases be handled? What authority has the assembly to act in judgment? God has given human beings the right to exercise discipline in a number of spheres. For example, governments are given authority from God to punish evildoers (Rom 13.1-5). Again, parents are authorised to administer chastisement to their children (Prov 23.13-14). What is true in government and in the home holds true in the local assembly too. It is authorised by the Lord to act in discipline when evil needs to be purged, for the preservation of the testimony and the honour of His name. This is a sobering truth. Assemblies of God are tasked with administering the authority of God in cases requiring excommunication. In so doing they are carrying out God’s will on earth. When a certain brother in the church of God at Corinth was put out of fellowship for sexual immorality, Paul the apostle spoke of the excommunication being done as the assembly gathered “in the name [authority] of our Lord Jesus Christ” and “with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 5.4).
In Matthew 18 there is a description of an assembly disciplinary process in which the assembly’s action is described in terms of ‘binding’ and ‘loosing’. Verse 18 says “Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” To grasp what is being said here, it is helpful to note that the verbs “shall be bound” and “shall be loosed” are both perfect passive participles. Young’s Literal Translation gives the sense as follows: “Whatever things ye may bind upon the earth shall be having been bound in the heavens, and whatever things ye may loose on the earth shall be having been loosed in the heavens.” The verse is not saying that the act of excommunication carried out on earth is subsequently ratified by God in Heaven. Quite the reverse: Heaven binds first; then the assembly binds on earth what has already been bound above. To put it in plain language, when a believer is put out of fellowship, that excommunication is the binding of a disciplinary action on earth that reflects God’s verdict already given in Heaven. And, if the believer later repents and is restored to fellowship, the binding action is loosed, again in accordance with Heaven’s will. Thus do Millennial conditions – “Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven” – find their answer in the present age!
F W Grant says of this passage, “[The assembly] is not a democracy, but a monarchy most absolute … The church is a body not legislative but executive: it does not decree what shall be, but decides upon what is. It has authority to act, but upon lines laid down for it.”² That is to say, the assembly does not function like a Parliament that develops and passes new laws. An assembly simply administers established divine Scriptural principles in fellowship with Heaven. In the words of W E Vine, “An act of church discipline is not simply the act of the assembly; when rightly used it is the exercise of the authority of Christ, carried out in His name and power.”³
This vital subject of ‘authority and the assembly’ can now be summarised in three points:
(To be continued …)
¹ H Hitchman, Some Scriptural Principles of the Christian Assembly, (Glasgow: Gospel Tract Publications, 1988), p 74.
² F W Grant, The Numerical Bible, The Gospels, (New York: Loizeaux Bros, 1897), pp 186-187.
³ W E Vine, Collected Writings, Vol 5, (Glasgow: Gospel Tract Publications, 1985), p 174.