The Church and the Work II - Rethinking the Work
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Apostolic Procedure - Basis of the Churches - The Highest Court - Preserve the Local Character - The Local Churches
Because the Body of Christ has these two different aspects—life and ministry—it consequently has two different outward manifestations. The church in a locality is used to express the life of the Body, and the gifts in the Church are used to express the ministry of its members. In other words, each local church should stand on the ground of the Body, regarding itself as an expression of the oneness of the life of the Body, and it should on no account admit of division, since it exists as the manifestation of an indivisible life. The various ministers of the Church should likewise stand on the ground of the Body, regarding themselves as an expression of the oneness of its varied ministries; and perfect fellowship and co-operation should characterize all their activity, for though their functions are diverse, their ministry is really one. No local church should divide into different sects, or affiliate with other churches under a denomination, thus departing from the ground of the Body; and no group of ministers should unite to form a separate unit, standing on other than Body ground. All their work should be performed as members of the Body, and not as members of an organization existing in distinction from it. A worker may employ his gifts in the capacity of an officer of an organization, but in so doing he departs from the ground of the Body (p.57).
These prophets and teachers did not stand on individual ground to send the apostles forth as their personal representatives, nor did they stand on the ground of any select company to send them out as representatives of that particular company; but they stood on the ground of the Body, as its ministering members, and set these two apart for the work of the Gospel. In their turn the two, being thus separated, went forth, not to represent any particular individuals or any special organization, but to represent the Body of Christ, and the Body of Christ alone. All work that is truly scriptural and truly spiritual must be out from the Body and must minister to the Body. The Body must be the ground on which the worker stands, and it alone must be the sphere in which he works (p.60).
In sending Barnabas and Saul from Antioch, the prophets and teachers stood for no “church” or mission; they represented the Ministry of the Body. They were not the whole Church, they were only a group of God’s servants; they bore no special name, they were bound by no particular organization, and they were subject to no fixed rules. They simply submitted themselves to the control of the Spirit and separated those whom He had separated for the Work to which He had called them. They themselves were not the Body, but they stood on the ground of the Body, under the authority of the Head. Under that authority, and on that ground, they separated men to be apostles; and under the same authority, and on the same ground, others can do the same. The separation of apostles on this principle will mean that the men sent out may differ, those who send them may differ, and the time and place of their sending may differ too; but since all is under the direction of the one Head, and on the ground of the one Body, there will still be no division. If Antioch sends men out on the basis of the Body, and Jerusalem sends men out on the basis of the Body, there will still be inward oneness despite all outward diversity. How grand it would be if there were no representatives of different earthly bodies, but only representatives of the Body, the Body of Christ. If thousands of local churches, with thousands of prophets and teachers, each sent out thousands of different workers, there would be a vast outward diversity, but there could still be perfect inward unity if all were sent out under the direction of the one Head and on the ground of the one Body.
That Christ is the Head of the Church is a recognized fact, but that fact needs emphasis in relation to the ministry as well as the life of the Church. Christian ministry is the ministry of the whole Church, not merely of one section of it. We must see to it that our work is on no lesser basis than the Body of Christ, otherwise we lose the Headship of Christ, for Christ is not the Head of any system, or mission, or organization: He is the Head of the Church. If we belong to any human organization, then the Divine Headship ceases to be expressed in our work.
In Scripture we find no trace of man-made organizations sending out men to preach the Gospel; we only find representatives of the Ministry of the Church, under the guidance of the Spirit and on the ground of the Body, sending out those whom the Spirit has already separated for the Work. If those responsible for the sending out of workers sent them out, not as their own representatives or the representatives of any organization, but only as representatives of the Body of Christ: and if those sent out stood on the ground of no particular “church” or mission, but on the ground of the Church alone, then no matter from what places the workers came or to what places they went, co-operation and unity would always be possible and much confusion in the Work would be avoided. (pp. 60-61).
The Plurality of Elders This work of ruling, teaching and shepherding the flock, which we have seen to be the special duty of the elders, does not devolve upon one man only in any place. To have pastors in a church is scriptural, but the present-day pastoral system is quite unscriptural; it is an invention of man.
In Scripture we see that there was always more than one elder or bishop in a local church. It is not God’s will that one believer should be singled out from all the others to occupy a place of special prominence, whilst the others passively submit to his will. If the management of the entire church rests upon one man, how easy it is for him to become self-conceited, esteeming himself above measure and suppressing the other brethren (3 John). God has ordained that several elders together share the work of the church, so that no one individual should be able to run things according to his own pleasure, treating the church as his own peculiar property and leaving the impress of his personality upon all its life and work. To place the responsibility in the hands of several brethren, rather than in the hands of one individual, is God’s way of safe-guarding His Church against the evils that result from the domination of a strong personality.
God has purposed that several brothers should unitedly bear responsibility in the church, so that even in controlling its affairs they have to depend one upon the other and submit one to the other. Thus, in an experimental way, they will discover the meaning of bearing the Cross, and they will have opportunity to give practical expression to the truth of the Body of Christ. As they honour one another and trust one another to the leading of the Spirit, none taking the place of the Head, but each regarding the others as fellow-members, the element of “mutuality,” which is the peculiar feature of the Church, will be preserved (pp. 82-83).
The Word of God teaches us that the Church is one. Why then did the apostles found separate churches in each of the places they visited? If the Church is the Body of Christ, it can not but be one. Then how does it come about that we speak of churches?
The word “church” means “the called out ones.” The term is used twice in the Gospels, once in the sixteenth chapter of Matthew and once in the eighteenth, and we meet it quite frequently in the Acts and in the Epistles. In the Gospels the word is used on both occasions by our Lord, but it is employed in a somewhat different sense each time.
“Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16.18). What church is this? Peter confessed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, and our Lord declared that He would build His Church upon this confession—the confession that, as to His Person He is the Son of God, and as to His work He is the Christ of God. This Church comprises all the saved, without reference to time or space, i.e. all who in the Purpose of God are redeemed by virtue of the shed Blood of the Lord Jesus, and are born again by the operation of His Spirit. This is the Church universal, the Church of God, the Body of Christ.
“And if he refuse to hear them, tell it unto the church” (Matt. 18.17). The word “church” is used here in quite a different sense from the eighteenth verse of Matt. 16. The sphere of the church referred to here is clearly not as wide as the sphere of the Church mentioned in the previous passage. The Church there is a Church that knows nothing of time or place, but the church here is obviously limited both to time and place, for it is one that can hear you speak. The Church mentioned in Chapter 16 includes all the children of God in every locality, whilst the church mentioned in Chapter 18 includes only the children of God living in one locality; and it is because it is limited to one place that it is possible for you to tell your difficulties to the believers of whom it is composed. Obviously the church here is local, not universal, for no one could speak at one time to all the children of God throughout the universe. It is only possible to speak at one time to the believers living in one place.
We have clearly two different aspects of the Church before us—the Church and the churches, the universal Church and the local churches. The Church is invisible: the churches are visible; the Church has no organization: the churches are organized; the Church is spiritual: the churches are spiritual and yet physical; the Church is purely an organism: the churches are an organism, yet at the same time they are organized, which is seen by the fact that elders and deacons hold office there.∗
All Church difficulties arise in connection with the local churches, not with the universal Church. The latter is invisible and spiritual, therefore beyond the reach of man, whilst the former is visible and organized, therefore still liable to be touched by human hands. The heavenly Church is so far removed from the world that it is possible to remain unaffected by it, but the earthly churches are so close to us, that if problems arise there we feel them acutely. The invisible Church does not test our obedience to God, but the visible churches test us severely by facing us with issues on the intensely practical plane of our earthly life.
∗Throughout this book it would be well for the reader to distinguish clearly between the Church and the church