by T. Austin-Sparks
Chapter 8 - The New Testament Assembly and the House of God
Its Importance and its Values
It would be difficult to say things too strong or too great in connection with the importance of the assembly and the House of God. There is only one danger, as far as we can see, in that connection, and that is that mentally we might put some "thing" in the place of "Someone", but inasmuch as we have been occupied with the "Someone" and recognise that if it is "something" that emerges, it issues from the knowledge of the "Someone". We make that safeguard to warn our own hearts about that peril. It remains true that it is difficult to exaggerate the importance of the House of God and of the local assembly.
Realising the Divine Purpose
In the first place, the House of God is a divinely appointed means and method of realising the divine purpose. We would put a good deal of emphasis upon the importance of the divine purpose. We should not minimise or belittle that, but we must remember that God has His own way, His own method, His own means of reaching His end and for realising His purpose. And if God has appointed that, fixed that, established that, then the means and the method take importance, and the House of God is the divinely ordained and appointed means and method of realising the divine purpose.
We must assume that you know the Word of God. We could go right through the Old Testament and the New Testament proving, gathering the data, to establish what we have said, that the House of God is something ordained, fixed as God's means and method of realising His end. You have a great deal immediately coming to your mind as such things are said. So we assume your knowledge of the Word.
Again, the House of God is -
A Spiritual and Heavenly System
A lot of people are afraid of that word "system", and, put in a wrong realm, we might well be afraid of it. Nevertheless, God is a God of order, God is a God of arrangement, of design, of plan. There is a fixed economy with God, and the House of God is a spiritual and heavenly order. It is fixed, it is divinely governed. To violate it is to run great risks, is to be in peril. It means loss, calamity. If the Holy Spirit, Who is here to preserve that divine order and to have it recognised and established, really has His way, He will bring us into the knowledge of what that order is and require it of us, that we recognise and we accede. Herein, of course, is the importance of the Holy Spirit being sovereign amongst the Lord's people, because we do not know. The majority of the Lord's people do not know the heavenly system, the heavenly order and the thoughts of God.
This is not a hard thing. It is a very blessedly simple and easy thing. Given that one's condition is of absolute yieldedness to the Holy Spirit, the established sovereign government of the Spirit of Christ, we shall spontaneously come to know. Of course, that yieldedness to the Holy Spirit means a very great deal more than it sounds in a statement of that kind, such a comprehensive statement. We have to learn that there is still so much of the domination of our own ideas about the Lord, the Lord's things and the Lord's ways. There is that strong inheritance from a system which has perhaps run in the stream of our blood for generations. All sorts of things count, and very often it means a very big upheaval, a terrific break with a past, with what seems to be very constitutional with us, in order to come under that absolute government of the Holy Spirit so that He can reveal to us something which perhaps may be altogether contrary to our deepest and fullest and most long established convictions. It takes time; nevertheless the truth is that as the Spirit gains the upper hand we are bound to come into the knowledge of the heavenly things according to the mind of God.
Just for the moment the point is this, that God is a God of order, and the House of God is that in which God's order is set up. The opposite of order is anarchy, and we know that outside of the House of God that is what obtains.
Then again, the House of God is -
A Necessity to God and to His People
I suppose we could take it for granted that if God appoints things, ordains anything, He does not do so just by a whim. He is not playing at something, He is not pretending. He does that thing because it is essential to Him. If it is true that God has chosen and appointed that that which is called His House should be His means and method of realising His purpose, then that thing is necessary to Him. Let no one say that this is something which is optional, something which is quite extra to a normal Christian life. It is nothing of the kind. We cannot play with divine things as though the Lord were making a pretence, that the Lord was in a realm of fancifulness and without any serious meaning saying these things, and bringing in certain ways and means. God is above all that sort of thing, and with Him this is essential. If that is so we may take it that we shall never reach God's full end until we recognise the absolute necessity for God's method and God's means.
Now, all that we have said is general concerning the House of God. The assembly is intended by Him to be the local expression of that. The local expression is therefore as necessary as the whole thing. That is, the thing as a whole can only have an expression by local means.
Divine Purpose is Related
We now come to some of the values of the assembly as the local expression of the House of God. We said that all divine purpose is bound up therewith, but we must go further than that and recognise that all divine purpose is related, so far as believers are concerned, as to
We mean by that that the divine purpose cannot be wholly attained unto and realised in a detached, isolated, separated or fragmentary way. Divine purpose includes all saints, and all saints together, not as parts, fragments, separated or detached. Divine purpose is an indispensable whole, and requires the whole House of God. We can explain that as we go on. Divine purpose, being related, being one, being bound together so far as believers are concerned, can only be known by all saints. To make that quite simple, if you or I as individuals should be born again, and then in detachment from every other born again child of God should live our life in some isolated place, we as individuals could never know the whole purpose of God. We might know a fragment, but we could not know the whole. The full knowledge of God's thought is given to the church, not to any one individual, and not to the individuals as separate, isolated units.
The working of that truth is quite clear, that when you have an assembly that is moving under the Lord's headship by the Holy Spirit's government, you have a wonderful range of divine illumination, instruction and revelation. It is wonderful what a fulness the Lord unveils of Himself to a spiritual company, and it is that company that draws it out, so to speak. The company is the Lord's opportunity, the Lord's occasion. He gives fully, in great fulness, and great ranges of revelation of Himself to spiritual companies who are moving on with Him. So that the very knowledge of divine purpose is a related knowledge. It requires the assembly.
The same thing holds good with regard to spiritual growth, just as to spiritual knowledge. Fulness of spiritual development does not take place in isolation. Fulness of spiritual growth takes place in the related lives of the Lord's people. We owe more than perhaps we realise in our spiritual enlargement to our fellowship with the people of God. That is a tremendous factor. It is a divinely ordained factor. If Thomas goes outside the circle he will simply remain an arrested unit, going round in his own little circle, and never getting anywhere; but if he will come in with the others, he gives the Lord the opportunity and the occasion that He is waiting for of giving him a new revelation of Himself. Take yourself off, and you will begin to go round in a very small circle, and there will be no advance and no growth until you come back again, because the Lord has ordained this. You cannot set aside something that the Lord has established without loss. For spiritual growth, divine purpose is therefore a related thing.
The same thing is true as to vocation. If you prefer you can call it service, though vocation is a bigger word and covers more ground. No one can ever fulfil the whole of the divine purpose in service in an isolated way. Take account of things as far as you have any knowledge and experience, as to whether it is not true that where relatedness does not obtain, there is limitation and arrest in the knowledge of the Lord, in spiritual growth, and in the service of the Lord according to the Lord's whole purpose.
Let us see some of the effects on both sides.
The Assembly is a Necessity to
No one member can come to the Lord's fulness on his own. The greater measure of the Lord's fulness requires a company, and the entire measure of the Lord's fulness requires the whole church, not just a local assembly. That word of Paul in Ephesians 2 may apply to local assemblies, it may apply to individuals. In either case the principle is the same. "Each several building, fitly framed together". That may be the individual as a separate building. There is much in the Word to indicate that the individual believer is a building of God. It may apply to the local assemblies. The law is the same in either case that the several building fitly framed together, whether they be individual or local assemblies, are required unto the full end, a habitation of God through the Spirit. Now you reach the crux of the whole matter. In what does God dwell in fulness? Not in individuals and not in local assemblies, but in the whole House. No individual, no assembly, can know the fulness of the divine indwelling; it takes the whole, it is related. So, therefore, we can only know fulness in a related way.
Balance is not an unimportant thing. It is a thing of very great importance. When we speak of balance we are speaking of measure. We are needed in a related way for the government of our individual measure. I should help you to your fulness, but I also ought to keep you within the bounds of your measure, and if you try to get beyond your measure and still remain in fellowship with me, you do damage to that fellowship.
Now spread that over the assembly. We have often illustrated this from the human body. You can take an organ from the human body, and separate it from all its associated or related organs, and by artificial stimulation you can keep it alive, and you may even develop it beyond its ordinary proportions or measure; but you have done great damage to it, and to the rest of the body. The result is that you get something detached from its right connection but it is quite abnormal. What has happened? All those other related organs and tissues are essential to keep it within its measure but also to help it to fulfil itself to its measure. All related organs are essential to its normal life both within its bounds and up to the full measure of its bounds. You and I are organs in that sense, in a great organism.
Now put that to the test again. If any individual, or any company of individuals, become a law unto themselves, detached from the rest of the Lord's people and run on their own, on the one hand there is spiritual loss, and on the other hand there is abnormality and loss of balance. It is always so. It is impossible for a true Holy Spirit assembly to become unbalanced. A true assembly according to God can never be departmental, it can never have one line of teaching only, it can never have one line of activity only. An unrelated organ becomes unbalanced. Now, if you set up a company of the Lord's people and say that their whole work, their entire work - and they must touch nothing else - is evangelism for the salvation of souls, you have not got an assembly. You may have a Gospel Mission, but you have not an assembly. If you constitute a company of the Lord's people, and say, "Now our whole and our entire and exclusive purpose is teaching, we must not touch evangelism, we must not touch anything else!" you have something unrelated and abnormal and unbalanced. Wherever that sort of thing obtains you have an arrest of development somewhere, you have an unbalanced state, you have not got fulness, and sooner or later that abnormal condition produces a lot of trouble.
You have set up a line of "holiness teaching", for instance, and let it always and ever be that. Call yourself a Holiness Movement, and have nothing else to say than about this thing. Sooner or later you will get a lot of people into trouble, and the world is strewn with people who have got into an awful mess because of an undue emphasis upon one thing. You can get the purely evangelistic or Gospel line. What happens? As a rule, after fifty, sixty or a hundred years you have a whole company of babes, who have been born again for fifty years or so and are still babes. That is abnormal. A true assembly can never be departmental in that way. A true assembly is marked by fulness. It has the full-orbed revelation of Christ. You are never allowed unduly to remain along one line. You think you have sometimes reached the apex of revelation, and there is nothing more to be shown, and then the Lord breaks in and you find yourself with something more coming through from Him than you never thought of. So you go from peak to peak; that is, when the Holy Spirit has the matter in hand.
This is connected with the assembly, with the House of God. Such as have not assembly training spiritually both lack and come short in the matter of spiritual fulness, knowledge, growth and serviceableness to the Lord, and are unbalanced, having preponderances. All freelances are abnormal. Sooner or later, whether they be individuals or companies, they will be abnormal, or perhaps we ought to say subnormal. They either fall short or go beyond. Perhaps both are true. One of the unfortunate things about such people and such companies or institutions, is that they are more right (so they think) than anyone else, and everybody else is less right than they are. They are blind to anything else. If there is anything else they do not see the need of it, and they despise it, set it aside as something unnecessary, and think that what they are on is the necessary thing.
A true relatedness amongst the Lord's people brings us to the place where we see the value in everything that is of the Lord, and we are grateful for everything in the world that is of the Lord. We appreciate it, we do not despise it, in so far as there is something really of and for the Lord, a truly balanced believer appreciates it and never sets it aside.
The Assembly Builds Itself up in Love
Herein lies the values of the assembly. One course, one direction of assembly life is that it builds itself up in love, it edifies itself. Its increase, its maturity is mutual, and it is by its maturity that it makes its increase. The assembly, on the other hand, checks everything that is abnormal, keeps down every preponderance. If you are going to live a true life according to assembly principles, no one will be marked by an importance greater than their due. Everyone will be given their due importance, but no one will be marked by an importance which does not belong to them. You cannot set up people on natural grounds to take precedence and to be important people in a true assembly. Those things go. It does not matter what they are according to nature, be it social, be it intellectual; in the assembly their measure is spiritual, and nothing else. Their place is according to spiritual measure, and the assembly simply makes it impossible for them to be anything else. If they do not accept that, they have a bad time about it, and say, 'These people are not taking account of who I am and what I am, of my social status and my tradition, my position and my acquirements.' They are not taken account of, and they feel offended; they will go, and they had better go!
Yet the lowliest according to this world, the humblest, the poorest, the least having spiritual measure will be recognised and will gradually come in that spiritual recognition to a place of usefulness and helpfulness. The assembly governs. It is not that there is a law projected, and put upon people; it is simply the very state of things. You are in a spiritual state, and all that you take account of is what is spiritual, and people cannot breathe in the presence of such if they are not spiritual in a spiritual assembly, and they know that if they have got to remain, they must go on with the Lord. It takes all responsibility off of us; it is Holy Spirit governed. Spiritual government takes responsibility of an official kind away from us, and a good deal of anxiety. We must leave that with the Lord.
There is all that value in true fellowship, and it makes for spiritual increase. It is mutually helpful in enjoyment of what is spiritual, and in the holding unto its measure under spiritual government of what is not spiritual, so that in a related way we fulfil our function to the full, but we never get into the realm of what is untrue, unreal, artificial or false by becoming abnormal. There is no place like a spiritual fellowship, a true assembly, for making unrelated falsehood and artificiality manifest. It comes out, and you feel that you are all false, it is all artificial, it is not real, and you have got to let go, it cannot thrive.
Many questions will arise from what we have said, and one of them will be, What about those who have no local assembly? The answer is quite ready, and, I believe, quite a right one provided that you are not out of fellowship because you are an awkward person, but because of a true case; not that you are expecting every other believer to be up to your standard or you want a certain line of teaching and you want a certain measure before you could associate with that. Provided there are true children of God seeking to walk with Him, you should be associated with them as far as possible. But given that there really is nothing, that there is a barren desolation, there are no children of God but geographically you are really cut off, what are you going to do? We have said that the assembly is essential for all these purposes and how you can learn the assembly in truth, in spirit, in principle yourself in relation to all the Lord's people. We are not necessarily speaking about people who are actually in assemblies, but those who have an assembly background, an assembly understanding, that you must know the truth of the relatedness of everything of God and never cut yourself off and be a law unto yourself, a freelance; but that, given a spiritual knowledge of the revelation of the church which is His Body, you can move according to the laws and principles of the church as the Body wherever you are.
Some will have to go to different parts of the world, where they find nothing of this actually existing, but the assembly being something which is primarily the Holy Spirit's business, can mean a very great deal to us wherever we are, in spirit we can enter into that. We can by faith appropriate the fellowship of the Lord's people and derive great benefit therefrom. We can stand by faith into the prayers of the people of God who are praying for all saints. They may not know us, either by name or in any other way, but they are praying for all saints, and that includes us, and a faith appropriation of that which is universal so far as the church is concerned, brings benefit.
Then again, we must remember that any decisions that have to be made, any work that has to be done, is not something that belongs to us. It is not our work, our mission, our particular line of things. We have to bring that to the Lord, to have everything of a related kind, and get the personal element entirely out of it. You must see that failure to recognise that means a petering out of things sooner or later. Take anything that has been built up and around individuals. What happens? It goes on while that individual is alive, and for a little while after. Then artificial respiration has to be brought in to keep it going, and the thing has got to go on by its own momentum, and the momentum has got to be produced by itself somehow. That is not how the true church has gone on through the ages. God has looked after that, and maintained a testimony in the earth. He has taken responsibility. Anything of man always goes that way, and anything that is of man usually becomes something in itself and more or less unrelated to the whole thing that God is doing. Somehow or other it seems impossible for man to have any other mentality than that and, however well he means, in the long run the issue is that it is his thing.
We have so often heard people saying about certain pieces of work that this is God's work and not theirs, and they are out for the interests of God, that is all. Then you have touched their piece of work in some way, and there has been a furore, and you have said, 'But you said it was for the Lord and it was not your work, that you are out for the Lord.' 'Oh, yes', is the reply, 'but you interfered with us.' Now, with all the good meaning in the world, until the Cross has slain that which is personal, it becomes something of man and it will have to be carried on by man sooner or later. The thing which is of the Holy Spirit must be carried on by the Spirit, but it does demand the Spirit and the principle of the whole Body of Christ; that is, that everything is related to the whole.
That should be a kind of spiritual mentality with us, that wherever we are we never for a moment accept isolation, detachment or independence, or be freelances, but we must always recognise that we ourselves and all that we are in, and all that we are doing is but a part of a whole, related in the Holy Spirit, and has got to be maintained as that. So that God has His complete thing, His many-sided thing, His diversity in unity. The trouble is that man has taken the diversity and destroyed the unity. So that the evangelist has no room for the teacher, and the teacher despises the evangelist, and so on. That is not the House of God. In the House of God all these are equally divinely appointed. If God gave these gifts, who shall say that any one of them is unimportant? They are all necessary.
May the Lord give us this spiritual mentality of fellowship, not the technique of the church but the spiritual mentality of fellowship with all saints.
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