Informal Apostles & Elders
Discussing the regional work of apostles (the workers) working from regional centers, travelling to church localities, giving the gospel, and training elders.
The regional work of informal apostles (the workers) - whom are no longer formally the apostles of the first century apostolic age but, nonetheless, they shall do the same work (Acts being the only book of the Bible that was incomplete without an ending - not to say the 66 books are not the complete Word of God - which is to mean we are to write the last act of the book of Acts and God foreknew we would need to).
Apostles Set Up Elders Though Not Always
Apostles for a Region of Churches with No Set Meeting Place
Observe a worker’s (apostle's) travels for the Lord concerns the appointment of responsible brothers. Not every worker can appoint elders. Paul asked Timothy and Titus to set up elders, but apparently he did not call Mark, Silas, Luke, Demas, and others to do so. Some of us are to be hands, but not eyes. Think of yourself for a moment as a hand. Can a hand after much consideration determine whether a pillar is white? Even if it were to deliberate for five days, it could never figure out the color. It would have to ask the eye to see and determine. Those of us who are hands or ears but not eyes, let us be mindful of the fact that it is easy to set up a responsible brother, but it will be most troublesome to ask him to step down because of our own carelessness in having appointed him. How the entire Church suffers greatly in this respect. For this reason, we must not appoint responsible brothers carelessly. Paul called Timothy to seek for the faithful ones. This indeed is not a light area of concern.
The Work Is Regional
Among several things which have been shown to us, the first is the important principle of region or area. Whereas the. churches are local, the Work, we have come to see, is regional. To us this is something which has become crystal clear from the Scriptures. To put the matter differently, a church is in one locality, whereas for purposes of the Work, many such localities together form one region. This is evident from the New Testament, although ten, or even five years ago, we did not have the light to see it. It is apparent to us now that the Twelve worked in one region, while Paul, Silas, Timothy and Barnabas worked in another—or in more than one. And if we study the Epistles we shall discern a number of such different regions. Let us note also the words in 2 Corinthians 10, where we find Paul writing of his labors as follows: "Now we will not boast out of measure, but according to the measure of the rule which the God of measure has apportioned to us, to reach to you also" (v.13 Darby). He seems here to allude to the matter of appointed spheres of work, as though God drew a circle for them and drew another circle for another group of His servants, and that within these limits was to be found the sphere of work of a particular company of workers.
This, therefore, is the difference of operation, as we see it, between the church and the Work: that the Work is regional, but the churches are not. No church can exercise jurisdiction over other localities, for its authority is essentially local. The sphere of the Work, on the other hand, is wider and embraces several localities in a single area or field.
At one time we tended to confuse the sphere of the Work with the locality of the church. Today we see clearly that the Work comprises a number of localities, and that its sphere of operation is wide. For example, we find Peter and John cooperating as a team or unit in the Work of one region, while Paul and Timothy labor together as another unit in a different region. The different groups of workers maintain contact and have fellowship with one another, yet they equally have their respective working areas within which they move.
The Region Has a Center
We come now to a second principle. Each region, we find, has a center; whereas the churches, of course, have no such center. The church in Jerusalem cannot—as a "central church"—rule the church in Samaria. No local church can control another local church, nor can one church control several churches. The widest scope of a church’s authority is its locality; no more. There is no such thing as a regional church or an association of churches. The Church has neither regional council nor headquarters. But with the Work it is otherwise. The Work has a region and the region has a center, and that is why in the book of Acts we see Jerusalem as a center and Antioch as another center.
This will help to explain what may until now have been a problem to some of us. If we have not yet seen that the Work is centralized in this way, then we shall probably have found Jerusalem a difficulty to us rather than a help. We have not understood its special character. While the whole New Testament confirms that the Church—in its practical expression—is local, nevertheless there seems something special to be learned from both Jerusalem and Antioch. What we have come to realize today is that the church in Antioch is one thing, while a Work taking Antioch as its center is another. From the standpoint of the churches, Jerusalem and Antioch are of an equal level with, say, Samaria; but from the standpoint of the Work, Jerusalem is a center and Antioch is also a center.
At the beginning of Acts the Lord’s promise is that, when the Spirit is come, they shall witness "in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea and Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth" (1.8). Here Jerusalem is distinctly a working center in the divine plan. Again, in the thirteenth chapter, there emerges a new beginning at Antioch. The Holy Spirit makes a new departure, and from there men arise and go forth to work in other places. Thus Antioch is constituted another center of the Work. It was the Spirit who made a beginning at Jerusalem, and now it is the Spirit who makes a beginning at Antioch.
In Jerusalem Peter, we must remind ourselves, was an elder. Here is something of value we have discovered through reconsidering Jerusalem. In days past we have stressed Peter as apostle, but have overlooked Peter as elder. In Jerusalem he had a double ministry. With regard to that city he was—like James and John—an elder of the church; but with regard to the whole Work that was centered there, he was an apostle and so were they. For this reason, when writing to the church at Antioch they wrote as "apostles and elders" (Acts 15.23). How otherwise could elders in Jerusalem write a letter giving command to the church in Antioch? Are they elders who write? But there are also elders among those to whom they write! Going outside their locality as elders, they would automatically become involved in a conflict of authority. If, however, they were not only elders but also apostles, then the letter they sent to Antioch in fact carried the weight of the Spirit’s witness, both in the church at Jerusalem and in the Lord’s Work through the apostles.
So today we see how the Work of God operates regionally. God would have His Work in an area centered in one place, from which workers go and to which they return. In the local churches it is elders who bear responsibility; but in a regional center of the Work, there are not only elders as such but also workers bearing responsibility jointly with them.
Scripture gives no support for the common practice of assigning a worker to a given locality for work and for government there. Unless he migrates to that locality and becomes a resident elder of the church there, a worker should settle in his Jerusalem. For two thousand years Peter has been blamed for not leaving Jerusalem, and some have even suggested that it was because Peter and John remained there that persecution fell upon the Jerusalem church. There is no basis in the Bible for this view, and the Lord tells us plainly that it is "because ye are not of the world" that "the world hateth you" (John 15.19). No, neither by travel nor by staying at home shall we avoid the persecution which comes when we begin to follow the Lord. That is certain!
But on this question of going and returning, we can be assured that Peter was in his right place. He went to Samaria, for in Samaria was the Work of God; but from there he returned to Jerusalem. He went also to Caesarea; but once again he came back to Jerusalem. All this was because Jerusalem was his center, whereas Samaria was only one of the cities in that region of the Work. Thus it was that the fellow workers, moving from place to place through the region, set out from Jerusalem and returned there repeatedly.
When we come to the choice of a center for the Work, we must be quite clear that this is a matter not for man but for God. Only He can decide the place, and only the Holy Spirit can initiate the Work. Human judgment and initiative have no part in this. We cannot consult together to choose a site for Jerusalem. Only the Jerusalem of the Spirit’s choice is Jerusalem indeed.
So Peter moves to and from Jerusalem. Later, Paul moves to and from Antioch. They do not settle permanently in other places, but always return to their starting point. Their work is carried on within definite bounds or regions or spheres—call them what you will—and from divinely chosen centers. For each group of workers in any place, it is "according to the measure of the rule which God has apportioned."
We should never appoint a worker from outside as elder of a local church. It was only in Jerusalem that Peter was an elder as well as an apostle. If you are resident in a place, you may be both elder and apostle simultaneously in that place, but nowhere else. You may go out as a worker to help other churches, but you must return. It is wrong for you not to return. Like Paul you may take a large circuit and come back, or like Peter you may go out and return directly. Either is correct; but you must return. Paul came back to Antioch, Peter to Jerusalem; this is the Lord’s word, and it could not be plainer. (Church Affairs, CFP, W. Nee)
Informal Apostles & Elders
Informal Apostles & Elders
Discuss Biblical locality (Acts 14.23, 8.1; 1 Cor. 1.2; Rev. 1.4, 2.1, 8, 12, 18; 3.1, 7, 14) and the special Work (Acts 13.2) of the Ministry (Eph. 4.11-12) which precedes the existence of church locales. Study Assembly Life (pdf). Discuss various types of meetings in the practice of fellowship at a designated weekly meeting place within walking distance! In a Biblical locality - a city, town - there are many meeting places, and each meeting place is about fifty to one hundred brothers and sisters (1 Kings 18.4) and as many as 3000 to 5000 (Acts 2) in congested areas. An Elder of a meeting place takes care of a meeting place with its various types of meetings.
Though there may not be the title of elders today, there nevertheless are men in every place who are like elders and who do the work of the eldership. They act as informal or unofficial elders. Yet the question still remains, How are they raised up? Who asks them to act as elders informally? We must answer that they are appointed by the informal apostles.
Though this question of apostles remains controversial, there is nonetheless a class of people today who are performing the works of apostles—such works as preaching the gospel and establishing churches. They confess that they fall short of the holiness, power, victory and labor of the apostles because they can only do a small portion—perhaps one thousandth—of the works of the early apostles. Yet God uses these people in our day to labor in various places just as He used the apostles in the earlier days. Formerly it was these apostles who established churches everywhere, but now it is these informal apostles who do such work. We admit they are far inferior to the early apostles, that they are not worthy to be called apostles; nevertheless, we cannot but acknowledge them as doing part of the apostolic work. These men are those whom God uses in today’s ruinous state of the Church as apostles.
There is another aspect of informal as mentioned in Spirit of the Gospel,
Only the relationship between friends is something informal and conducted on the basis of the same or equal position. A good father is not only that to his son but he is also his son’s friend. A judge usually stands opposite to a criminal, yet some judges may even become criminals’ friends.
And meetings themselves if too rigid lose the quality of "informal meetings," as noted in Revive Thy Work by Watchman Nee.
Returning to the First Love
How do we return to the first love that was lost in the first century?
First, we must know what that first love was in Christ. The apostles were directly commissioned by God to appoint elders of a locality whom in turn approved the elders of meeting places within a locality. Such was the harmony in the Ephesus first century church period. This was the spiritual arrangement set by God, which means any model that has more levels or less levels in the Work than this, is not abiding in Biblical locality.
To reclaim this first love that was lost we again need 12 apostles who will find agreement and from that agreement, more apostles will follow to do the regional work of appointing elders for localities.
It is that simple. The bottleneck is we don't have the 12 in agreement yet. That is the mission of these forums is to find them.
The 19th question is unique, the only one of its kind. The purpose is to require responsible elders to give their meeting place on the Meeting Place Finder map selflessly because the forums are designed for the Finder, not the other way around. Because an elder in doing the work for the body of Christ wants to remain selfless, they choose not to be a member of the forums if they are unable to, for whatever reason, submit their meeting place for the body of Christ to find a place to fellowship, found through the internet.
Boundary of a Local Assembly
We will now deal with the subject of the boundary of the local assembly—that is to say, how far-reaching is the sphere of a local assembly?
The authority of the elders, which we have mentioned before, is to be exercised within the local assembly, because elders are established for the local assembly. Their position and function are all related to the local assembly. Elders in Shanghai are not elders in Nanking or Peking. Whereas the gifts of God are for the whole Church, the offices are for the local assembly. There are no super elders who can control assemblies other than their local one. Elders can only govern a local assembly.
How extensive is the border of a local assembly? How large a place is required to form a local assembly? Please note that the Bible never divides the Church according to region, nor does it even place several churches under a regional church. Although there are seven churches in Asia being mentioned in Revelation, we do not find in God’s word that Ephesus or Philadelphia had been chosen to control the other six churches. We only see seven churches represented by seven golden lampstands. In the Old Testament record there is mentioned the one lampstand with seven branches; but here in Revelation are seven lampstands—not one with seven branches but seven lampstands representing seven separate churches, each emitting light and each bearing responsibility directly to Christ. Whichever church it may be, it accepts the rule of Christ and not the control of other churches. Each lampstand is independent in government, without it being managed by other lampstands. Each is responsible to its high priest, the Son of man who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands. None of them is subject to any of the other churches. Though they are seven churches, they do not join to form a united church and make themselves answerable to a regional or annual conference. We may say that each is a “congregation” which takes a locality as its limit.
The Bible usually takes a city, the smallest executive governmental area, as the boundary of a local assembly. A local assembly is the unit of the Church in God’s word. It does not join with other assemblies and make the resulting larger church a central church. In other words, in the eyes of God, He has not made Rome as the central church. He never makes any local assembly the center of the churches to be in control of other assemblies. There is no center on earth in God’s government. Even Jerusalem was not a center to the early churches.
This did not rule out the existence of regions in the biblical record. Some places were so similar in conditions and needs that they would receive the same treatment in the record. For instance, it is said of Paul that he “passed through the upper country” (Acts 19.1); again, “from Jerusalem, and round about even unto Illyricum” (Rom. 15.19). These are regions. Galatia, too, was not a single city, but a province. And hence the Bible mentions “the churches of Galatia” (1 Cor. 16.1). The book of Revelation records the seven churches in Asia, since Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea were all located in the region of Asia. Asia is a region; Galatia is a province. Let us be clear that although the need, testimony and service of these local assemblies were closely akin to each other, no one church assumed a superior organization and authority over the other nearby churches. Some may think of Jerusalem as having been “the mother church.” Actually there is no such thing as a mother church. To put it another way, each local assembly is locally governed, it being directly accountable to Christ and not answerable to any other organization or assembly. This is to say, in short, that a local assembly is to be the only—yea, is to be the highest and lowest—organization in a locality. There is nothing lower or higher than a local assembly. Since there is no higher court above it to which to appeal, it is the highest organization in a locality. And because it is the lowest unit of the church on earth, there is nothing lower.
The Bible does not endorse a centralized Rome that controls all the local assemblies. This is because Christ in heaven reserves for himself the position of being the Head. Each and every local church must maintain the testimony of the body of Christ, since each is a miniature manifestation of Christ’s body. Each must be directly responsible to Christ and not to any other assembly. Each is under the rule of Christ and not under the control of any other organization.
God purposely set Jerusalem aside lest people would misconstrue that the Church on earth needed a center. He sent apostles out from Antioch (Acts 13) and not out from Jerusalem in order to avoid the misunderstanding that the church in Jerusalem was the mother church with all the other churches serving as her branches. Let us therefore never consider the assembly at Shanghai as the mother church. The assemblies in various localities are subject to Christ directly and not to any other assembly.
This truth concerning the independence of the local assembly is a balance to the truth of the inter-relatedness of the various assemblies in the body life. For God will not tell one assembly not to do something but then tell another assembly to do that very thing. He will guide one assembly in the same way as He guides other assemblies. We earlier saw how the Gentile churches were to imitate the churches in Judea. We also saw earlier how God ordains His churches not to move independently but to keep unity by paying attention to the movement of the body of Christ: for example, whoever has been excommunicated by one assembly should not be received by another assembly. One assembly is bound together with the other assemblies in that it should not act independently. It is not of God that any assembly should move freely on its own without considering the other assemblies. Yet, there is the other side of truth which declares that each assembly is directly responsible to the Head. How easy for us to go off-balance, but truth must be kept in balance.
Sometimes we may fall into the way of Rome. Whatever Rome decides, all the Roman Catholics must obey. But this is not the balance of truth. What we need is to accept the restraint of the other assemblies in that we agree to march forward together in matters of truth and on the other hand to see that we each are directly responsible to the Head. The churches mentioned in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 (Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea) have their own golden lampstands respectively. Each is positioned in its own stand; none of them is somebody else’s stand. Each maintains its own place and is accountable to God. And hence the Lord reprimands as well as commends Ephesus itself—He does not put the blame of Ephesus on Smyrna nor transfer the virtue of Ephesus to Smyrna. No church is responsible for any other church, and no church stands by the other church, because all are directly responsible to the Lord and all accept His rule. At the same time, however, God’s word declares this: “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches” (Rev. 2.7). This illustrates the balance of truth.
On the one hand, the message is addressed to the angel of the church at Ephesus; but at the end of the message to Ephesus, it is said to be spoken as well to the churches. At the beginning of each of the seven letters, the letter is addressed to the particular angel of the individual churches respectively, but at the end of each letter it is made clear that each letter is for all the churches to hear. It commences with an individual church being directly responsible to God; it concludes with every other church needing to hear the word which God declares to each of the other churches. This indicates how all the churches must keep that which one church receives. As to the responsibility of each church, every one is individually responsible to God; as to the movement of all the churches, there needs to be a concerted action. This explains why the letter is sent to Ephesus but why it is also applicable to all the other churches. Such is the balance of truth.
In the Bible God has ordained that the lowest unit of the Church on earth is the local assembly, which at the same time is equally the highest. Every local assembly is a miniature manifestation of the Church universal. There is nothing larger or smaller than it. We need to be careful that whatever we do in Shanghai may be in step with all the churches in China. We need to seek not only to maintain the same step with all the churches in China but also to take the same step with all the local assemblies of the world. Nevertheless, whatever action the church in Shanghai takes, it is directly responsible to God. It is not to be controlled by any other organization. So far as the authority of the church in Shanghai is concerned, nothing is higher than the eldership. This is the boundary which God has ordained. In each city, there is the plurality of elders, but these elders may only govern the local assembly there and not extend their government to assemblies elsewhere. The boundary set by God is to appoint elders in every city; consequently, the authority of the elders cannot extend beyond the city limits. The Bible advocates the local assembly which is then governed only locally. May we maintain this balance of moving together with other assemblies as well as bearing responsibility directly towards God as a local assembly.
The Border of a Local Assembly
Concerning the border of a local assembly, in the New Testament God makes the city to be its boundary. So that the maximum sphere of a local assembly is a city and nothing larger than a city. In the biblical record, there is no church that controls a region, a province, or a county. The city always marks the limit of the church. A city was originally the aggregate of people who lived in the same locality. Let us realize that due to today’s complicated life we have such divisions as county, township, village, and so forth. In the olden days, wherever the people congregated and lived and were protected—that was considered a city (Gen. 4.17). For various reasons, they lived in the city. In the first part of Genesis we find nothing smaller than the city. At the time when Joshua apportioned the land to the Hebrew people, we notice that the place where people lived was still called a city, only now sometimes villages were also mentioned (see Joshua 18.28). When the Lord Jesus sent out His disciples to preach the gospel, they were sent to cities (see Matt. 10). This is because in the biblical account a city was viewed as the lowest unit of the aggregate of people.
Thus the boundary of a local assembly in the Scriptures is according to the limit of such a city. Ephesus, Corinth, and Thessalonica, for example, were all such cities. The border of a local church never exceeds the limit of a city. The province of Asia was such a large area that it had seven churches. Galatia was a region, and hence the phrase “the churches in Galatia” was used. Corinth, on the other hand, was only a city, and so the whole church assembled together there (1 Cor. 14.23). The church in Corinth is but one church. Throughout the New Testament we see that all the local assemblies take the particular city limits as their border.
How wise is the way of God in keeping believers from confusion. For if He were to take the nation as the boundary of the church, the border of the church would then frequently be changed because a nation would fall and thus would the boundary of the church be altered. If God were to use the province as the boundary of the church, the border of the church would also be subject to change since provincial lines can often be altered too.
Would not all these cause confusion? Instead, God in His word used neither province nor nation nor other political division as the unit of church boundary. He took instead the city or village as the church boundary because its border and name are not easily changed. We see national, regional, and provincial borders and names frequently altered, but the names and borders of cities and villages are the least influenced by political change. The names of many villages have remained the same for hundreds of years. Many cities may be ceded to other nations, yet they still remain as civic entities because they are the most durable of political units. For this reason, God has ordained the city limits to be the border of the local assembly. Although we have mentioned the village as a variant unit of church border, in actual fact the village is but a miniature city. Hence God’s thought is still the city.
God makes cities the permanent unit of the local assembly. There is great profit in dividing church lines by this method without setting some higher control above it. For if there is sin or failure in one local assembly, it will not contaminate the other assemblies elsewhere. Had God put seven or eight churches under the authority of a few men, the failure of one or two among these men would undoubtedly have affected all these churches. If He had established a center in the province of Asia to control all seven of its churches, the failure of the center would have dragged all the other seven churches down with it. But these seven churches in Asia were respectively responsible to the Lord. Though five of them failed, there were yet Smyrna and Philadelphia which remained faithful. In this way God was able to preserve the weak and the good from the sinful and improper.
Dividing by City Line
What God first created was a garden—the Garden of Eden—and not a city. But what He finally is to obtain is to be the New Jerusalem, which is a city. So that the thought of the city was manifested only after the fall of man had occurred. Before man’s fall, trees such as the tree of life and other fruit-bearing trees were planted in the Garden. And a living stream flowed out of the Garden. But since the fall of man, the work of God has ever been to transform the garden into a city. For a garden seems to have neither boundary nor protection. God purposely builds the city for the sake of protection as well as for boundary. It is to be separated, thus forbidding sin to enter its precincts. God has the city in mind not only for today, but also for the time of the millennium. The Scriptures make clear that some believers will rule five cities, some will rule over ten cities. And even at the time of the New Heaven and the New Earth, God still focuses on the city. For at that time there will be the city of New Jerusalem. He thus lifts up the city because it has a boundary, is separated, distinguishable, easily governed and not easily confused.
Wherever some believers are gathered together in a city, this gathering becomes the local assembly. Other assemblies in other cities cannot interfere with these saints’ local affairs. The border of a local assembly is as extensive as the limits of the city. Its boundary, therefore, follows the line of the governmental extent of the city. For God has not left to the brethren or to the elders to decide on its border. The responsibility of the church is to adopt the city or village as determined by the government. The dimension of a city is the dimension of a local assembly. Cities vary in their sizes. Some like Nineveh require a three days’ journey to traverse its city limits. Some are like Jerusalem whose radius is only about two miles (John 11.18, “fifteen furlongs”). Bethany is another place, but it does not belong to the city of Jerusalem. Although Jerusalem and Bethany are closely adjacent to each other, the first is a city which has its own border and the second is a village which likewise has its own border. And thus the Bible divides them according to their political divisions. In spite of the fact that some localities are larger while some are smaller, the church cannot make its own division but must follow the political or governmental division. For God uses the governmental division as the accepted dimension of today’s local assembly.
How to Meet Separately in One City
We have seen how the assembly in the Scriptures takes a city or a village as its unit. In Shanghai, for example, we meet in two different places—Wen Teh Lane and Gordon Lane. What is the relationship between these two meetings? Before we deal with this question, let us first consider how the Bible solves this problem when there are too many people meeting in one city. On the Day of Pentecost, three thousand souls were added to the church in Jerusalem. Later on, five thousand were saved. There were consequently many believers in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was different from Corinth. In the latter city not too many people were saved, and hence the entire church could be assembled together in one place (1 Cor. 14.23).
But in Jerusalem the entire church could not assemble together in one place because there were too many believers: first, three thousand, then an additional five thousand, and finally those who were being saved daily! They did not have such a huge facility. So that we see that even though they were all together as one, they broke bread in “homes” (see Acts 2.46). This was the difference between the church in Corinth and the church in Jerusalem. In Corinth they met in one place because they were comparatively few in number. In Jerusalem, however, they met in many “homes” because they were too many in number. Accordingly, when there are too many people in a local assembly, they may meet in many “homes.” This is how it is shown to us in the book of Acts.
The people of a local assembly may meet in different homes, but they are still one church. For instance, if in Jerusalem people met in scores of places, can it be said that in Jerusalem there was one church or that there were scores of churches? The answer of the Bible is: there is but one church. For let us recall that God uses the entire city (no matter its size) as the border of the local assembly. The church in a city is always singular in number. In Jerusalem there was only one church. Though there may have been scores of meeting places, the government of the church in Jerusalem was nevertheless one. It had the same group of elders and deacons. The elders in the church in Jerusalem may have functioned as elders in these “homes,” but they could not go to Samaria and function as elders there. This is because a local assembly takes the city as its boundary. Now this is our situation in Shanghai. According to the legal political division, Shanghai is but one city, and therefore there is but one church. Both the Wen Teh Lane meeting and the Gordon Lane meeting must together be reckoned as one church. When the number of a local assembly is increased, people can meet in different places. Some may ask what number should be reached before there are separate meetings? What is the limitation? Let us recall the incident of the distribution of the loaves by our Lord. Before He multiplied the loaves to feed the five thousand men, He caused the multitude to “sit down in companies, about fifty each” (Luke 9.14). “And they sat down in ranks, by hundreds, and by fifties” (Mark 6.40). In my opinion, since we are the Lord’s sheep, it is easier to be fed by dividing into companies of fifties or hundreds. Such division has several advantages.
(1) The apostles in the early days of Acts did not have money to build a large meeting hall. So they followed the principle of “home meetings” though not necessarily dividing into fifties and hundreds. Thus there was no difficulty in their finding places to meet. We today would rather not have a large central place but instead divide ourselves into fifties and hundreds.
(2) Having hundreds or thousands gathered together to break bread would have been time-consuming and also there would have been no cup and no loaf big enough for such a huge number of people. So it is evident that the many who were saved in the early days did not break bread all in one place. Even in our own day when we ourselves sometimes have two to three hundred people breaking bread together, it would take us one to two hours. Some people can wait but many may not have the strength to wait so long.
(3) For several hundreds assembling together, it is rather difficult to have good fellowship due to the limitation of time. On each occasion a person may know and fellowship with only one or two others. But by that method it would take months and months before a person could fellowship with all. How can the assembly grow in such a way? If, however, there are only fifty or a hundred gathered together, it is relatively easy to fellowship with one another, and it enhances the growth of the believers. It is also easier for the responsible brothers to take care of all the brethren. When the number becomes too large, it is difficult to give good care. This is therefore a principle we should practice.
It was for this reason, among others, that last year we started to meet in Gordon Lane as well as at Wen Teh Lane. Yet the meeting in Gordon Lane and the meeting in Wen Teh Lane are not two churches but are one church—one entire fellowship—meeting in two “homes.” The responsible brothers in Wen Teh Lane are the same as those in Gordon Lane. When a brother travels from Shanghai to Nanking, he needs to have a letter of recommendation. But for him to go to Gordon Lane from Wen Teh Lane and vice versa, he does not need such a letter.
Concerning City Limits and Suburbs
“And the children of Israel gave unto the Levites out of their inheritance, according to the commandment of Jehovah, these cities with their suburbs” (Joshua 21.3). This passage speaks of cities with their suburbs. “Blessed shalt thou be in the city, and blessed shalt thou be in the field” (Deut. 28.3). This passage speaks of city and field. From the Old Testament record it is understood that every city had its suburbs as well as its fields. These suburbs and fields surrounded the city for the sake of providing the city with necessities. The food the city consumed came from the suburbs and fields. The city obviously could not exist by itself. In addition, the city had to be responsible for its suburbs and fields. Likewise today, the church in the city should bear responsibility not only for the city but also for the suburbs and fields. Whether it is preaching the gospel or building up the saints, the church in the city should take care of its suburbs and fields; for the latter support the former, and cause the number in the assembly to increase. In other words, the people in the church of the city should also take care of the people in its suburbs and fields. When people are saved in the suburbs, and they are not able to meet by themselves, bring them to the city to meet. This will support the meeting in the city and make it stronger. But after the brethren from the suburbs increase in number, and they have also learned to meet, let them become another “home” or even make the suburb as another “city” unit and begin a new assembly.
(1) Should we practice the laying on of hands today?
The Bible does mention the laying on of hands, but it is not the same as what people call laying on of hands today. Nowadays, it is always viewed as a case of the “better” laying hands on the “lesser.” But in the Scriptures there is equally the view that the “lesser” can lay hands on the “better” as well as the “better” can lay hands on the “lesser.” As recorded in Acts 8, when the apostles Peter and John laid hands on the Samaritan believers, what they did was a case of the “better” laying hands on the “lesser.” But Acts 13 tells us that in the church at Antioch, when several prophets and teachers ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said to them: “Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them” (v.2b). So they laid hands on Barnabas and Saul and sent them away. Now we know from this same passage that Paul and Barnabas were apostles, but they had hands of the prophets and teachers laid on them. Yet in Ephesians 4 the apostles are listed first, then the prophets and the teachers. And hence in Acts 13 we find the “lesser” laid hands on the “better.”
The biblical conception of the laying on of hands is not what people today usually think of—the latter being an action of the “better” performed on the “lesser.” In the Scriptures, laying on of hands is but an expression of fellowship, sympathy and union. The laying on of hands spoken of in Acts 8 shows that the Samaritans were also joined to the body of Christ even as their baptism testified to their being joined to the death of Christ. The laying on of hands told of in Acts 13 indicates that the church was united with Barnabas and Paul and was in full agreement and fellowship with them. Their going out was the going out of the whole church. Such kind of laying on of hands exhibits to us that it was not only Barnabas and Paul who went abroad to preach the gospel but that the whole church at Antioch went forth with them. So that what the two apostles did was related to the entire church at Antioch. Their laying on of hands spoke not only of their fellowship with the ones who received this token (Paul and Barnabas) but also of the fellowship of the ones who received the laying on of hands with the whole church at Antioch. If anyone would go out from one locality to work for the Lord, it is best if he is sent out by the laying on of hands.
Let us be careful in our wiping out all the traditions of men from Scriptural teaching just as people cleanse dust from the glass. Some do not wipe the dust off but instead break the glass because it is filled with dust. Many may suggest that since we talk about elders and deacons and the laying on of hands we are not different from any denomination. Let us see that there is actually nothing wrong with these things in themselves; but what is wrong is that which men have added on to them. Our purpose today is not to destroy the works of the denominations but to restore the things which God had originally ordained. We cannot forsake biblical realities because of human adulteration. We instead ought to ask if God has so commanded. When I go out to do spiritual work, how many times I expect the brethren to lay hands on me to show that I do not go out alone but that the entire church sends me out. They are one with me.
(2) When Paul laid hands on Timothy, he imparted a gift to Timothy. Is a gift received through the laying on of hands?
What is a gift? It is the ability of a member. In other words, if you are an eye in the body, your gift is seeing; if you are an ear in the body, your gift is hearing. When a person is joined to the body of Christ, he immediately receives a gift. Why, then, did the apostle lay hands on Timothy? In representing the body of Christ, the apostle recognized that Timothy was also a member of that body. It pleases God that such laying on of hands will activate a gift in the person. What Acts 13 expresses is also the union of the body of Christ, although it is not for the manifestation of gifts but for the demonstration of the principle of our working together. Never can prophets and teachers impart gifts to apostles. I believe the laying on of hands should be continued. Nevertheless, Paul warned Timothy to “lay hands hastily on no man, neither be partaker of other men’s sins: keep thyself pure” (1 Tim. 5.22). Hebrews tells us to “not lay again a foundation” (6.1). Both baptism and laying on of hands are included in that foundation. And hence, if we neglect the laying on of hands there will be some flaw in the foundation.
(3) How about receiving people to the breaking of bread? “Him that is weak in faith receive ye” (Rom. 14.1). “Wherefore receive ye one another, even as Christ also received you” (Rom. 15.7). Receiving people is but a part of the procedure. The main question is whether or not there is faith itself, not merely how strong or weak their faith is. The other question is, Will God accept them? We need to know if God will accept them or not. We cannot accept those whom God does not accept.
Concerning this matter of receiving, I would like to mention a few things here:
(a) People who come with letters of recommendation. We should accept all who come with letters of recommendation, though we need to discern where these letters come from. Letters which come from places where their stand on the Christian faith is doubtful cannot be taken at their face value. We cannot accept people simply on the basis of these letters. But with respect to letters from places where their faith is known, we can believe and also accept the people recommended. We must believe that what these places do are what we too will do.
(b) People introduced by two or three witnesses. We can accept people who are introduced by two or three brethren. The problem lies in people who are passing by or in visitors who break bread with us only once. In my opinion, it is best if two or three brothers can talk with them to find out if they are saved before receiving them.
(c) There are a few things we ought to know before receiving anyone to break bread:
(1) if that person is saved;
(2) if he has committed any of the sins mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5 which are grounds for excommunication;
(3) if he knows that the breaking of bread is not only to remember the Lord but also to discern the body of Christ.
Numbers (1) and (2) are conditions, for a person must be saved and clean before he can partake of the bread. Number (3) is a teaching, the instruction of which he ought to have, that he may stand on the ground of the body of Christ. Otherwise, he will eat and drink judgment to himself.
If a person is saved and he has not committed the sins of 1 Corinthians 5, and even though he may not be able to discern the body, he still can be received, because we must receive those who are weak in faith. However, we should be faithful in instructing people to discern the body, yet without making it a condition for receiving people because this will make us a sect.
(4) After a person is saved, must he be baptized before he can take the bread?
In the case of a newly saved person, it is better for that one to first be baptized and then to break bread. In the Bible we do not find recorded any names of people who have believed for some time but were not baptized. For believing and baptism were simply joined together. Never was a person saved but kept from baptism for several months. Furthermore, we cannot make baptism a condition for breaking bread. Some are only sprinkled and do not know that baptism is a testimony. We ought to receive such people for they belong to God. We must not make baptism a condition for receiving people; we can only take it as a teaching. We cannot excommunicate people who are not baptized. When they truly see the cross, they will obey the truth and be baptized.
Can Women Be Apostles and Elders?
The Preaching to Young Workers
The Preaching of Young Workers
Many a time today’s problem of the church begins with people’s desire for more gifts. They assume that they have a certain gift, whereas in actuality they may not possess that particular gift. And so they spoil the work in their hands. They mean well, but they have simply not been given that gift; and hence they are unable to accomplish it. It is just like one who may have the gift of a teacher but he cannot do other works: he can only fulfill his portion of work in deciding on the truth of the Scriptures or maintaining that truth or discovering new truth. As another example, a person with the gift of an evangelist can only do his work of evangelizing: he cannot be a substitute for the teacher in teaching or deciding on truth: he can only fulfill his own part.
The problem today lies in the fact that few if any in the whole world stand in their proper place and are satisfied with their own position. The evangelist wants to be a teacher, and the teacher desires to be an evangelist. Everyone admires being what he is not. What is this? Is it not the manifestation of the flesh, the inclination of the natural man? Yet in the Body of Christ each member has his distinct function. The ear cannot be a substitute for the eye, nor the eye the ear. Even should the ear be located on the eye, the ear still remains an ear, for it cannot see. Here we discern the necessity of standing firmly in one’s own position. Each one of us must learn to stand in his own place.
Personally speaking, young workers need not only be subject to the older workers but also to know what is God’s appointed place for them. By recognizing your given place you will not fall into the flesh, thus saving the work. Naturally, in the event that a young worker truly has the gift of teaching while the older workers around him lack that gift, then under such circumstances the older workers need to submit to the younger worker and accept his given gift. Nevertheless, each young worker should try to find someone more mature from whom he may learn obedience. There must be some older workers to whom he can be subject. Paul told Timothy to "abide thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them" (2 Tim. 3.14). Timothy needed to find out from whom he had learned. He had to go and find the worker who was ahead of him.
A young worker must learn to accept unreasonable dealings. He should understand what unreasonable submission is. For true submission does not argue: if there be reasoning, then obedience is gone. In the work of God, no one can be independent nor can he escape submission. The young need indeed to be submissive; but then, too, the older is not to be an exception either. We cannot afford to be independent. If God should reveal a new truth to a brother, that brother must go forward in the spirit of mutual submission. He must not take any independent action.
Covenants, Dispensations & Acts Goes On
There is the Abrahamic Covenant, the Old Covenant of the Law with the nation of Israel, and the New Covenant in the dispensation of grace. There are several covenants below these major ones.
The Age of:
1. Innocence - Adam
2. Conscience - After man sinned, up to the flood
3. Government - After the flood, man allowed to eat meat, death penalty instituted
4. Promise - Abraham up to Moses and the giving of the Law
5. Law - Moses to the cross
6. Grace - The cross to the Millennial Kingdom
7. Millennial Kingdom - A 1000 year reign of Christ on earth centered in Jerusalem
The Book of Acts Goes On
And Paul abode two whole years in his own hired dwelling, and received all that went in unto him, preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching the things concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness, none forbidding him. (Acts 28.30-31)
Saying, What thou seest, write in a book and send it to the seven churches: unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamum, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea. And I turned to see the voice that spake with me. And having turned I saw seven golden candlesticks; . . The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in my right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks are seven churches. (Rev. 1.11-12,20) The Bible is a composite of 66 books. Of these 66, many—with respect to their subject matter—are obviously concluded at the end of their reading. For example, the book of Genesis has 50 chapters. When you read to the very last chapter, you instinctively feel that that is the end. Matthew has 28 chapters and you sense quite naturally when you come to its final chapter that it is truly the end. The same feeling comes to you after you have read Romans chapter 16 or Revelation chapter 22.
But there is one very special book in the Bible about which you could not say you have reached the end. You can say that it is the end of the matter with regard to many of the other 65 books of the Bible, but about this particular book you cannot. And that is the book of Acts. When you arrive at chapter 28, you are surprised that it should close so abruptly. You really sense it is not yet concluded. And as a matter of historical fact, this book of Acts truly has no end, because what it speaks about is indeed still going on. The record of the acts of the apostles of the first century may be concluded, but the record of the apostles of all succeeding centuries has not been completed. Up to the present moment, in fact, you continue to read about the acts of God’s apostles. In short, the book of Acts has not yet been finished.
"My Father worketh even until now," declared the Lord, "and I work" (John 5.17). This tells us the fact that ever since the rebellion of Satan and the fall of man God has been working until now, and so also has the Son been at work. How about what we find in the Acts? Let me say that the book of Acts is not a record of the work of Paul nor of the work of Peter; it is the record of the work of God. Who can say that after the time of Acts 28 God labors no more? Who can dare say that the work of the Lord comes to an end at Acts 28?
This book has no conclusion. After the period of chapter 28, God still has many vessels who do His work. The labor of the Lord continues on; it does not stop there. Paul’s life did not end after his two years’ work in Rome. So far as his entire life is concerned, after his stay in Rome for those two years, he was released from prison and was able to visit new places as well as some old ones. He was later taken captive and was finally martyred. These events were not set down in the book of Acts. We need to note that Peter and Paul and John were three important persons in the church of God, yet none of their concluding periods of life was ever recorded fully in the Scriptures. Can we accurately say, then, that the book of Acts is ended?
How can the testimony of God ever be fully written? It is truly without end. Neither a chapter 29 nor a chapter 30 nor even up to a 100th chapter will or can ever be written. New things would need to be added on all the time if the writing were to go on. For this reason, therefore, Acts must stop abruptly at chapter 28. Nevertheless, though nothing is further recorded after that chapter, the work of God has continued onward. The work of the first century did not reach its zenith. If the work that God has accomplished during these 4,000 years were to be consummated at the end of an Acts 28, then we would now be at the bottom of the mountain and God’s work would have by now greatly declined. But nothing of this sort has happened. For the Lord plainly declares, "My Father worketh even until now, and I work."
Let us not assume that the work of God reached its zenith at the time of Paul or at the time of Martin Luther. The first century did not conclude God’s work, and neither did the sixteenth century terminate His work. The Lord’s work shall proceed forth until the kingdom age, and even to the new heaven and the new earth will it still go on without end. And if we believe as well as know this truth, we shall praise God.
People often commit this error: they think that they live in the worst period of the church. People at the time of Martin Luther thought so; people at the time of John Wesley also thought this. We would say, however, that the era of Martin Luther was very good, and that the period of John Wesley was likewise very good. Perhaps fifty years from now, people will even say that the time we live in today was good. We are fearful lest men stop working, but let us understand that God will never cease working. Each year He knows what He will do. Each year He knows how far He will go. Each year He will accomplish what He has purposed to do. Daily will God go on; He always advances. Hallelujah, the Lord continually moves forward!
We must see that whenever God moves forward He always has His vessels. In the period of the book of Acts, He had His vessels. At the time of Martin Luther, He had His vessels. And during the time of John Wesley, He likewise had His vessels. In each period of spiritual revival, God has had His own vessels. Where, then, it should be asked, are God’s vessels today? Unquestionably the Father works until now, but who among men continue to cooperate with Him? Who will say, as did the Lord Jesus, "and I work"? This becomes a serious question.
If at this point we are given a little light by God so as to see a little of His reality, we shall come to acknowledge that the vessel which God today seeks for is the very one which He in the beginning has always had in mind—which is His church. In other words, the vessel which God ultimately looks for today is not an individual one, rather it is corporate in nature. And if He indeed needs a corporate vessel today, we will immediately realize that unless His children are brought to see what is the body of Christ and what is body life, they will be useless in the Lord’s work and will not be able to arrive at God’s aim.
The first chapter of Revelation tells us that the church is the golden candlestick. God in His word not only says the church is golden, He also says that the church is the golden candlestick. If the church is only golden, she cannot satisfy God’s heart. Why does God say the church is the golden candlestick? Because the golden candlestick serves the purpose of spreading the light so that the light may shine far and wide. God wants the church to be a shining vessel, a vessel of testimony. From the very beginning He has ordained the church to be a candlestick. Not one certain person, but the entire church. In the divine view the church is a candlestick. It is therefore not enough for it simply to be golden, which means that everything about it is of God: it must also shine for God and testify for Him as the golden candlestick.
The church exists for the testimony of God. If it is not golden, it is not the church. Yet if it is not also a candlestick, it is still not the church. If there be no life within, it cannot be the church; but then, too, if there be no testimony within, it will not be the church either. The church must understand what God expects to do and to obtain in this age. She will be a golden candlestick if she sees what the testimony of God on earth is today.
May we reiterate quite simply here, that the work of God proceeds onward, that the Lord still looks for the suitable vessel, and that His vessel today is the same as that which was true at the beginning—which is to say, that it is not something individual but something collective in nature: in other words, the church.
People will perhaps ask concerning the overcomers in the church. True, the church is in great need of overcomers; but the testimony of these overcomers is for the benefit of the corporate entity, not for that of the personal. Overcomers are not a class of people who deem themselves to be superior, esteeming themselves as better than the others and pushing them aside. Not so. They instead work for the entire body. They do the work, and the whole church receives the benefit. Overcomers are not for themselves; rather, they stand on the ground of the church and bring it to maturity. Hence the victory of the overcomers becomes also the victory of the whole church.
Now since the vessel God needs is a corporate one, we must learn to live the body life. And to live out body life we must deny our natural life. We must receive deep dealings from God. Being dealt with by Him and having learned obedience and fellowship, we may have the privilege of being His vessel.