Building up believers and the New Testament church

The Church at Jerusalem

The place occupied by the church at Jerusalem in the years immediately following Pentecost stands out in marked contrast to its early decline from the important and useful service one would expect it to have rendered to the expanding cause of the gospel and the infant churches to which the Word of God was giving birth over a wide area. The Jerusalem church which in the first flush of its new-found spiritual life Luke describes as 'having favour with all the people' (Acts 2:47) could describe a great majority of its fellowship less than three decades later as being 'zealous for the law' (Acts 21:20). A further ten years and it had been driven into exile, but not before it had practically ceased to exist as a vital spiritual power. What were the reasons for this sad collapse? In this article it is proposed to examine three of the basic difficulties which beset the Jerusalem assembly.

The composition of the early Jerusalem congregation peculiarly adapted it to have the widest of sympathies in the future witness of the gospel to all nations. The feast of Pentecost brought to the city Hebrew-speaking Jews, Greek-speaking Jews of the dispersion, and proselytes who were Gentiles by birth. No doubt there were some of the latter also among those whom the mighty outpouring of the Spirit fused into the fellowship of the church. There were certainly not lacking men whose hearts were open to the Lord's working in whatever sphere He chose, as is clearly seen in the activities of those who were forced to leave Jerusalem subsequent to the persecution which followed Stephen's death (Acts 11:19-21). Barnabas is also an outstanding example of breadth of vision. There were, of course, the others whose deeply ingrained Jewish orthodoxy made them look with suspicion upon anything that had a Gentile connection. Nor, considering the debauchery of the Gentile world and the Jews' great respect for the holiness of God, need we be unsympathetic with their concern that a lack of vigilance might allow the church to be leavened with a low Gentile morality. The life of the Spirit, however, was the answer to that fear, and 'they continued steadfastly in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers' (Acts 2:42).

In fact, the life of the Spirit can never be disassociated from practical holiness. What is regeneration at all, Christ's life born within us, if it does not mean holiness? The life of the Spirit proved to be a powerful unifying factor and source of testimony in the early Jerusalem church. Not that the assembly was free from imperfections. Witness the subtle, simulated holiness of Ananias and Sapphira. But even that could not withstand the searching scrutiny of the Spirit of life, and the result was that 'of the rest durst no man join himself to them' (Acts 5:13). Holiness, Christ revealed in men and women, was a sufficient hedge about the church to protect it from the destructive influences of the world and the flesh.

The persecution that followed the death of Stephen caused a great diminution in the ranks of the Jerusalem believers (Acts 8:1). But it seems that the wrath of the 'powers that be' was vented largely upon those of a less orthodox Jewish background, namely the Grecian Jews who comprised a considerable proportion of the church. Others were left unmolested, among them James the brother of our Lord who was later to emerge as the undisputed leader of the group. These were believers many of whom still clung tenaciously to much of the old, ceremonial observance of Judaism and who, as a result, occupied a position of much higher standing with the Jewish authorities. The result of this purging of the fellowship was that the Jerusalem church was now more united in its outlook than it had ever been on the externals of the assembly life, and this outward uniformity gradually began to predominate over the much deeper unity of the Spirit.

One of the most deadly enemies of the spiritual life of a local church is a traditionalism which systematizes the church's worship and witness into a ritual of cold formality. In all probability, many of the priests who were obedient to the Lord (Acts 6:7) brought their loyalty to tradition over with them, but traditionalism does not need to be inherited from the past. It has an immense capacity of developing right in the present, wherever God's people tire of pursuing the ever-onward path of the Spirit and want to settle down, content with what they have already apprehended of Christ. There are many sincere companies of God's people throughout the world today who are as tradition-bound as the Pharisees of old, but who are perfectly sure that practically everybody else in Christendom is suffering from the malady except themselves. In Jerusalem, the tradition consisted of certain observances of the ceremonial law which were added to life in Christ as a condition of fellowship, and it was these outward trappings of church order that stimulated the attitude of superiority which looked askance at everybody who did not accept them.

The church that has settled down into the comfort of uniformity is in dire straits spiritually. Uniformity is usually the crystallization of attitudes and practices which at one time meant life and blessing. Do we attach particular importance to the way we do things in our church life? Do we think that a particular divine blessing rests upon our heads because we kneel or stand when we pray, because we go in for long meetings or short ones, because we prepare our messages or 'trust the Spirit,' or because of a multitude of other things? Are we convinced that of each one of these alternatives one is right and the other is wrong? Have we fallen into the snare of believing that everything is done in the Spirit simply because the pattern is right to our way of thinking? And conversely, do we feel that if anyone dares to question the validity of any part of our little traditional rut, he is spiritually sub-standard?

It is one of the great paradoxes of scripture that only that is conducive to spiritual life which is consigned to death. The 'grain of wheat' which must 'fall into the earth and die' (John 12:24) can be applied to so many aspects of our spiritual walk. No less can it be applied to the form of the local church. Every 'scriptural pattern' itself must go to the cross as did the Son of God, else it will die a death of isolation as it did in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem church was a prey to the spiritual destructiveness of uncrucified, scriptural patterns. Within the scriptural bounds of a developing spiritual life there is ample room for a wide divergence of thought and outlook, as a perusal of the lives of some of the great saints of God down through the centuries will adequately demonstrate. Life is the mark of the church, not uniformity.

It is, of course, much easier to gather together a company of people on the basis of a common allegiance to an accepted form, to say that a person belongs to us if he recognises a certain type of spiritual ritual or speaks a certain spiritual jargon, but not otherwise. These are things which the natural man can understand and upon which he can make a decisive judgment whatever the condition of his own spiritual life, or should he even have no spiritual life at all, but once conformity takes the place of the life of the Spirit (and it can do so almost imperceptibly), it presages the end of that very thing it is meant to conserve, the purity of the church. One of the great weaknesses of the Jerusalem church was this substitution of a legalistic uniformity for the unifying influence of divine life.

Legalistic uniformity in the life of a local church cuts at the very root of the life of the Spirit. It is also based upon a fallacious interpretation of scripture. Let it be said at once that uniformity is by no means dependent upon the existence of a clear-cut 'official line.' Meetings may not be conducted according to a set of written rules, but let us not be foolish enough to think that because we have not produced a book of church order by which to regulate our proceedings we are, therefore, doing everything in the Spirit. The unwritten law can be as deadly as any liturgy has ever been, sometimes even more so, for it can bring us into slavery to a tradition without our ever being aware of it.

The irony of the conformity imposed by the Jerusalem assembly was that, although it was particularly meant to conserve spiritual life, it so constricted it that the church's witness was more to form than to Christ, and the vital testimony of a reproductive spiritual life ultimately died out. There is a subtle mental transfer which it is only too easy to make from the importance of the life of the Spirit to some ceremony which is supposed to denote it.

Take, for example, baptism and the Lord's table. Both are the subjects of direct commandments from the Lord, so we may feel that people who are devoted to Him should have a sense of obligation to observe them. But is the converse equally true, that all who do observe them are to be assumed as people devoted to the Lord? Many people may answer this question in the negative, but in actual fact how often do we act as if that were the case? 'Is so-and-so born again?' 'Well,' comes the answer, 'he is baptized and partakes of the Lord's table.' In other words, 'We may assume so.' What has actually happened is that, in the mind of the person who replied, there has been a transference of thought and emphasis from the Lord to the form. It is the beginning of the process which ultimately ends with the predominance of the form and the Lord's dethronement.

We may well be zealous to obey what the Lord has asked of us, but let us always remember that the life of Christ is greater than the baptism, and the Lord Himself is greater than His table. It was precisely this, the failure to recognise that the Lord was greater than the ceremonies He instituted, that was the terrible downfall of much of Phariseeism. The Jerusalem church was following hard in its train.

Uniformity is based upon a misunderstanding of scripture. Here again the Pharisees erred, for they reduced scripture to a cold, legal code, and in the process, rejected the Spirit of life and liberty. Some may talk much of the scriptural pattern of the church, but it is very plain that scripture lays down no pattern at all for the church in the sense of a blueprint such as was given for the construction of the Tabernacle and of the Temple.

The Bible is not a book of regulations to govern mechanically the most minute details of our daily lives, but a demonstration of divine, eternal principles which have to be applied, and can only be applied to our circumstances through personal devotion and obedience to Christ. 'The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life,' as Paul so aptly reminds us (2 Corinthians 3:6). How easy it is to search through the scriptures for some precedent which will answer the need of some little point at issue, and then to think that it should be enforced as law. But the Word of God is living. The Bible is but an expression of the living Christ. When we allow that living Word to produce an expression of Christ within us, the honor of the Lord will mold our every action to glorify Him in the exercise of the glorious freedom of the Spirit.

God has left us many warnings in the pages of scripture, and few are more poignant than the barrenness of the church at Jerusalem, the church which graced the dawn of the Christian gospel radiating the grace and authority of its ascended Lord. Its inner life sapped by the creeping paralysis of tradition, hedged about by a wall of uniformity which kept the people of God out (but who would want to scale the wall for the air of superiority that reigned within?), it ended up as merely--the first Christian denomination.