Boundary of a Local Assembly

The Church and the Work: Assembly Life, CFP, Watchman Nee

 

1Ki 18:4   and when Jez'ebel cut off the prophets of the LORD, Obadi'ah took a hundred prophets and hid them by fifties in a cave, and fed them with bread and water.)

 

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.

Questions

(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.