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THE UNITY OF THE SPIRIT

“THE UNITY OF THE SPIRIT.”

 

Ephesians. iv. 3.

William Kelly

[Subtitles in square brackets are taken from the text and added by editor]

 

[The moment the church lays down an extra-scriptural test, she takes the place of the Lord]

 

The lesser excommunication was not yet invented, that is, the ” declaring out,” so stretched as to take in brethren who had no intention of going out: a convenient, but unscriptural, way of getting rid of such as gave umbrage. Surely whatever is done ought to be according to the plain positive teaching of God’s word. It is for the Lord to command—the church has only to obey. I take for granted that I address Christians who believe not more in the sufficiency of the written word than in the supreme authority of Him who wrote it for our guidance by the Spirit of God. Development is of man’s will, and unbelief. God has left nothing to be added. The church is under the orders of the Lord. If the church recognise any one, it is because the Lord has already received him; and if the church put away, it is simply as doing the Lord’s will. The church has no independent authority to legislate, but is called to believe, pronounce, and execute His word. Consequently, in all things the church has to remember that she is subject and He the Lord. He is to order, she to obey—her one place, privilege, and duty. The moment the church lays down an extra-scriptural test, she takes the place of the Lord, and there is a practical assumption, yea, a virtual denial, of His authority. The result is to form a sect in departure from the unity of the Spirit.

 

[Let a Christians subjection to the word of the Lord prove the reality of his mission from Him.]

 

The apostles, though set first in the church, were patterns of Christian humility. Who was so remarkable for patience as he who was not “a whit behind the very chiefest”, to whom a unique place was given by the will of God and the authority of the Lord Jesus? How much then should every true servant of Christ cultivate lowliness in these days! If a man think himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things written are the commandments of the Lord. Let his very subjection to the word of the Lord prove the reality of his mission from Him. This is of the last moment for our souls now; for perils and perplexities are constantly springing up, which affect the saints wherever they may be, and not least those who are gathered to the name of Christ.

 

[But is it of Christ to be on the watch for that which may not be of Christ?]

 

 

Let none fancy this is to disparage those admirable men whom the Lord used in days gone by. Cherish unfeigned respect for such as Luther, Calvin, Farel, and Zwingle, though quite allowing the infirmities of every one of them. It is childish to find fault with Tyndale and Cranmer, whilst idolizing Melancthon or John Knox. They were all of like passions as ourselves; and if disposed to study their lives and labours, there are ample materials not far to seek for criticism; and so with other men of God in our day. But is it of Christ to be on the watch for that which may not be of Christ? Faults are easily seen; it needs to-day the power of the Spirit to walk, not in their traditions, but in the like faith. Rarely has there been a time when faith has sunk to a lower ebb among those who might be supposed long inured to it than the present. It is most common to find saints who groan over a course as utterly wrong, and yet persevere in it for the sake of company, &c. How often they have to others insisted on the ancient oracle: “Cease to do evil; learn to do well.” They believe it doubtless: why not, giving all diligence, add to their faith virtue? Have they lost all courage in Christ and for Christ? I speak of what is now going on to our common shame all over the world. The compromise which you would hardly expect in new-born babes of God characterises men who have long known the Lord, and even suffered not a little at one time or another for the truth’s sake.

 

[The unity of the Spirit is a constant responsibility for the children of God to keep with diligence]

 

Beloved friends, it is of the greatest moment that we should try our ways, whether we deceive ourselves, or are in deed and in truth keeping the unity of the Spirit. Do not set against that duty the sad fact that the church is now a ruin. The question is, Are we not always to be obedient? It is not the point, how many or how few of Christ’s members may act together according to the word of the Lord. Do we own, ourselves, the obligation to be thus faithful? The unity of the Spirit is a constant responsibility for the children of God to keep with diligence as long as they are upon the earth. He abides with us for ever. To keep it therefore is always a paramount duty.

 

[If any in this city be already gathered to His name on the ground of the one body, they should not be ignored.]

 

Take a practical illustration. There is assembled in this room a company of members of Christ’s body, who can allow neither the broad ways of nationalism nor the narrow alleys of sectarianism. They desire above all things to walk together so as to please the Lord Christ. What then must be their stand? What position ecclesiastically ought they to take, if they would act with spiritual intelligence and fidelity? If any in this city be already gathered to His name on the ground of the one body, they should not be ignored. It would be independence, not the unity of the Spirit, to take no account of such a gathering. The member of Christ’s body who sought fellowship would ask, as he ought, if and where saints were gathered to His name. He finds, we will suppose, there are some meeting in this room, and prefers his desire to be with them on the same blessed ground of Christ. If they challenge his faith, it is not from lack of love to him, but from care for Christ’s glory. They do not receive him because he says that he is a member of Christ’s body. They require adequate testimony, where they have no personal knowledge. Nobody ought to be recognised on his own bare word; even the apostle Paul was not at the first. God took care to give an extraordinary witness through a certain disciple named Ananias, a devout man according to the law, having a good report of all the Jews that dwelt in Damascus; as in Jerusalem subsequently through Barnabas. The word is so plainly thus, and the danger so great otherwise, that no saint, who duly reflects with a heart and conscience true towards God, would wish to be accredited merely on his own word. Souls may deceive themselves, even if upright; but if you or I were to be so accredited, where is it to end?

 

[To refuse this member of Christ, without the strongest ground of known sin, would put shame not on him only but on the Lord.]

 

Again, a christian is brought before them, who desires to remember the Lord along with them. Perhaps he belongs, as they say, to the national establishment, or to a dissenting society. But he is well known as a child of God, walking according to the measure of light already possessed. What is to be done? To refuse this member of Christ, without the strongest ground of known sin, would put shame not on him only but on the Lord. It were to deny our title, nay, the true centre of gathering. Membership of Christ attested by a godly life is the sufficient and only right ground on which a Christian should ask to be received. If one understood all mysteries and all knowledge, — if one had all faith so as to remove mountains, one ought to plead His name alone.

 

Are there then no exceptions? May there not be valid reasons to forbid even an accredited member of Christ’s body? Certainly there are, as Scripture shows. Leaven of malice and wickedness is intolerable (1 Cor. v.); leaven of heterodoxy as to the foundations (Gal. v.) is yet worse; and the word is, “Purge out the old leaven that ye may be a new lump.” Here are unquestionable barriers reared in the word of God, and due to the Lord Jesus. If any man that is named a brother be unclean in deed or in word, in ways or in manifested spirit, we are commanded not so much as to eat with him. And it were a far graver sin, if one did not bring the doctrine of Christ, or even denied everlasting punishment for the lost. God assuredly will never allow the profession of Christ to be a passport for him that dishonours Christ. Here, and here most of all, is the Holy Ghost jealous, if the word of God is to be our rule.

 

Note: Keeping in mind what the author wrote at the beginning of the article, “The moment the church lays down an extra-scriptural test, she takes the place of the Lord”

 

[Ecclesiastical error, even if real and grave, never  approaches the denial of the doctrine of Christ.]

 

All truth is no doubt important in its place and season; but it is worse than ignorance to put the body on the same level as the Head. Ecclesiastical error, even if real and grave, never approaches the denial of the doctrine of Christ. Weigh how the apostle of love, the elder, solemnly warns us to be on our guard in such a case. We are not free to receive even privately, much less publicly, those who bring not the doctrine of Christ. We are unequivocally bound not only to disallow heterodoxy in general, but in particular to reject that which is, and those who are, a lie against Christ, yea, to treat those who receive such as partakers of the same evil deeds. But we are not entitled to equalise the church with Christ, like a Romanist, or to put ecclesiastical error along with evil against Christ’s person. This is not faith, but fanaticism: what can we think of such as conceive, or of those that circulate, this trash as the truth?

 

[The truth may not be always pleasant, though ever wholesome and good; and it is the truth that one desires to press upon souls, and that we ought to welcome.]

 

Still, in keeping the unity of the Spirit, we must accept the scriptural responsibility of purging out leaven. And, as we have seen, the Spirit of God writes direct to an elect lady and her children, because on such a question as Christ the duty is immediate and peremptory. Years ago, in having to do  with such an one, that Epistle stood us in good stead. For on her pleading that she was but a sister, and it was not her responsibility to do this or that, she was at once reminded that it was not to an assembly, nor even to a Timothy or Titus, but to a lady and her children that the Holy Ghost wrote, insisting on her own personal and unavoidable responsibility. We may be sure that the Spirit of God did not thus inspire a letter to a lady and her children, without the most urgent necessity, and in order to meet just such an excuse for shirking what is due to Christ at any time.

 

All know that women are liable to err on the side of their affections, being naturally more disposed to act through feeling than with calm judgment. The word of God recognises this in repressing them ordinarily (1 Tim. ii.), and in the special warning of 2 John. Their activity is always to be dreaded in cases short of Christ, a dishonour to themselves and to the men whom they mislead. The truth may not be always pleasant, though ever wholesome and good; and it is the truth that one desires to press upon souls, and that we ought to welcome. We are bound to see to it that the church of God be not made a cover for any known evil, and above all not to admit or screen knowingly that which sullies Christ’s glory. But women are bad leaders, or even instruments save as Scripture warrants.

 

 

[If members of that body, it is our inalienable duty to keep that unity in its true character, whilst subject to the conditions which the Lord has laid down in His word, and to none other.]

 

 

 

Let us distinguish things that differ. The English Establishment, in spite of many and grave drawbacks, had a holy object in its rise, turning its back as it did on an abominable and over swelling imposture. Though much hindered, especially by the king, in its work of clearing itself from many inveterate superstitions, it honestly set its face against what was known to be evil. But it retrograded afterward, until its ritualistic observances being made a test forced out many pious nonconformists, whose origin thus was morally respectable and godly. For it was no mean struggle in those days to keep a good conscience, and to stand opposed to those who were dragging them down into formalism. We need not speak of the Wesley and Whitfield movement, which was in main missionary, not ecclesiastical. We knew later on, how powerfully God wrought in awakening His children fifty years ago to a sense of the departure that had taken place from the original ground of keeping the unity of the Spirit. In such days it was no small thing to recognise that there is such a reality on earth as the presence of the Holy Ghost, and consequently the body of Christ. Hence, if members of that body, it is our inalienable duty to keep that unity in its true character, whilst subject to the conditions which the Lord has laid down in His word, and to none other. The Spirit has created that unity, a unity which takes in all members of Christ’s body, excepting those whom discipline according to the word requires us to reject.

 

[In denominations the bond is not their unity but in fact their differences, and in no case therefore the communion of God's church at all, in faith contemplating, as every true assembly does and must,all God's children. Those who call this looseness do  not know divine ground, and have unwittingly slipped into a sect.]

 

It may interest all to know that not the least weighty testimony that was ever given of late on this momentous subject was written in the year 1828 (“Considerations on the Nature and Unity of the Church of Christ”). The point was to show how impossible it is for saints who would honour the Lord to go on with the world, instead of walking (were they but two or three) in that unity which is of God; that in denominations the bond is not their unity but in fact their differences, and in no case therefore the communion of God’s church at all, in faith contemplating, as every true assembly does and must, all God’s children. Those who call this looseness do  not know divine ground, and have unwittingly slipped into a sect.

 

[How unwise and unbecoming for such now to exact from enquiring brethren a knowledge of the church far beyond  their own standard]

 

Far from looking for or valuing ecclesiastical intelligence before souls take their place at the Lord’s table, it is quite a mistake for us to expect it, and a shame rather than an honour to the few who may possess it. For how did they as members of Christ acquire such knowledge? In manifest unfaithfulness; either still continuing in their denominational enclosures and activities with a bad conscience; or in the anomalous state of mere hearers outside, seeking to attain a more familiar acquaintance with that truth in which their outside position declared them to have neither part nor lot, as if their heart were not right with God. Yet all the while they were members of the body of Christ; and as such they should have been within, learning more soundly and happily the truth they were acting on in their simplicity, a truer and better sort of intelligence than that intellectual insight into the church, which has been so erroneously over-rated by some in our midst.

 

The fact is that we are apt to forget our own beginnings and the gracious dealings of the Lord with us when we ourselves first broke bread, knowing as little perhaps as any. How many brethren are now among the firmest and most intelligent in fellowship, who saw but dimly not the church only but even the gospel of salvation, and revealed truth in general, when they found in the Lord’s name an immediate passport to His supper! They were by no means clear as to their future course, though attracted by the grace which saluted them as brethren, and enjoying the simple faith which bowed to the word of the Lord in a way and measure beyond their previous experience. How unwise and unbecoming for such now to exact from enquiring brethren a knowledge of the church far beyond their own standard at their start, and in fact not to be got save within the assembly, and in the path of obedience where the Spirit guides into all the truth! To those thus growing up and led, catholicism or denominationalism is judged by the word, and felt to be altogether unsatisfying and distasteful, as being evidently of man and not of God. What gives these new and strong convictions? Neither influence nor prejudice, neither argument nor imagination, but the truth appreciated by the power of God’s Spirit.

 

[Follow with all your soul the Lord Jesus, own the one  body and one Spirit, receive every godly member of His in His name. In this there is neither looseness nor sectarianism.]

 

Are we then to play fast and loose with divine truth? Nay, but it is a question of the Lord’s way with those who are His and have yet to learn: is it to be in liberty or in bondage? Doubtless every Christian ought to keep the unity of the Spirit, as gathered to the name of the Lord and to none other. A saint cannot legitimately have two communions. Is not the communion of Christ’s body in principle exclusive? Follow with all your soul the Lord Jesus, own the one body and one Spirit, receive every godly member of His in His name. In this there is neither looseness nor sectarianism. As the word of God is plain, so does the presence of the Spirit abide; nor do I allow that keeping the unity of that Spirit is a vain show. As He abides, so does His unity; and those who have received the Holy Spirit are bound to walk in that unity, and in none other. They are added of the Lord together, members of the assembly which God has formed for Himself in this world; and I deny the title of anyone to set up either rival or substitute. If you have His Spirit, you already belong to this one body, and are called to carry it out to the exclusion of all others.

 

[If by the grace of God we have the Lord Jesus before us, our hearts will go out towards all that are His walking after a godly sort.]

 

Thus it is no voluntary society we have to do with. It is no question of framing something better than either nationalism or dissent, nor an alliance which really condemns, while ostensibly it sanctions, the existing institutions of orthodox Protestantism. The truth however is that, before all these essays, God had Himself formed His church on earth; and such as have His Spirit are thereby constituted members, responsible to act accordingly. In Hίs church leaven of doctrine or of practice is intolerable, if we bow to Scripture. Every Christian is bound to reject falsehood and unholiness, and this corporately as well as individually. For the ruin of the church does not shut us up to individuality. If we follow righteousness, faith, love, peace, it may and should be with those that call on the Lord out of a pure heart. Isolation it is a sin to seek, as being a denial of fellowship. The church of God means the assembly of those that are His. But if ever so many, we are one bread, one body. As the Lord’s Supper is the outward expression of this unity, it is unworthy of believers to complain that too much is made of His Supper and Table; for it is God who calls them His, not we who only cleave to His word and confide in His will. Doubtless we need to keep Christ in this before our eyes; if not, we are in danger of moulding His Supper according to our will or caprice. If by the grace of God we have the Lord Jesus before us, our hearts will go out towards all that are His walking after a godly sort.

 

[To undermine grace and truth in recognising freely the members of Christ's body….. This is, to my mind, not unbelief only but a bad and base principle]

 

For a long time Satan has been endeavouring to falsify the testimony of Christ amongst those professedly gathered to His name. One of his wiles has been, under pretence of light and righteousness, to undermine grace and truth in recognising freely the members of Christ’s body. Utterly misconceiving the stand against neutrality, they would make no Christian welcome to the Lord’s Table who did not judge his old position by more or less intelligence of the one body and one Spirit; that is, without a virtual pledge never again to enter their so-called church or chapel. This is, to my mind, not unbelief only but a bad and base principle. It is in an underhand way to make a sect of those that know the church, but really to prove how little they themselves appreciate the one body: else they could net let knowledge override relationship to Christ, as they do. Never is the church rightly or truly learnt save within, according to the word, where you must leave room for growth in the truth by faith and God’s grace.

 

There is then the danger of virtually denying Christ’s membership by looking for an antecedent intelligence about His body which it is as unscriptural as unwise to expect, and the more wrong as it exists but feebly in many who have for years been in fellowship. But besides, there may be no less difficulty and danger among those already received, where the claim of truth or righteousness is pressed without grace. And those who are most wrong are apt to talk most loudly of that which they really imperil or unwittingly annul.

 

[But we received them freely in the Lord’s name, even though they might be weak enough to wish fellowship still with their old friends.]

 

There are not many who remember the Plymouth division in 1845-46. Moral charges were not wanting either, but it mainly turned on an effort of a large and influential party which lost faith in the Lord’s presence and the Holy Spirit’s free action in the assembly, seeking independency with its leaders. It is needless to say that the heavenly character and the unity of the church had faded away, as well as waiting for the Lord Jesus as an immediate hope. God would not suffer in our midst such lack of faith and of faithfulness. But the mass of the saints were beguiled by the error, and deaf to the warning; and but few separated, branded as schismatics by those who boasted of their numbers, gifts, and happiness.

 

What was the relation of those who for the Lord’s and the truth’s sake were forced in conscience to stand apart? The high-minded majority utterly refused humiliation and rejoiced that those were outside from whom they had been long and with increasing bitterness alienated. The then minority met at first in private houses only to humble themselves and pray, as after a little to break bread. But they never thought of rejecting the poor famished sheep who occasionally sought to break bread with them, without severing their connection with Ebrington Street. For indeed they were not only bound there by many ties, but under great fear through the swelling words and persecuting deeds of their old leaders and friends, not least of sisters who played an unenviable part in that sad history. They had of course this moral safeguard that none committed in will to the Plymouth defection, especially no chief, but scorned the seceders. Only the simple came, and, because they came, were cut off by the Ebrington Street party. But we received them freely in the Lord’s name, even though they might be weak enough to wish fellowship still with their old friends.

 

[As long as it was an ecclesiastical error, however firmly we refused it and came out from it, there was patience with those who failed to discern it or to judge it practically.]

 

But the moment that the blasphemous heterodoxy as to Christ appeared, there was an end of all this forbearance. The door was closed on all that continued with an antichristian faction. As long as it was an ecclesiastical error, however firmly we refused it and came out from it, there was patience with those who failed to discern it or to judge it practically. Such known saints of Ebrington Street as came were cordially received; and who ever heard of even one in these circumstances refused? But on the contrary, when the false doctrine against Christ was known, an uncompromising stand was made from the first; and no soul was received thenceforward who did not clear himself from association with so deadly an insult to the Father and the Son. With partisans of that evil Bethesda identified itself, and necessitated the world-wide division which ensued in 1848.

 

What then can be judged of those who confound these two things so fundamentally distinct? The ecclesiastical error, and the false doctrine as to Christ’s person and relationship to God? or the ways to be pursued in each case?

 

[They have either gone out from, or driven out their brethren whose one desire is to abide gathered, as we have so long been, to Christ's name.]

 

The divisionist party of to-day seems to me as guilty of independency and clericalism as that of Ebrington Street in 1845. And, believing them to be thus false to the truth of the one Spirit and one body, I cannot but feel thankful for God’s overruling grace in the midst of overwhelming sorrow. For their intolerance of others has taken the initiative; and they have either gone out from, or driven out (too often by unworthy manoeuvres), their brethren whose one desire is to abide gathered, as we have so long been, to Christ’s name. But they have proved their ignorance in the plainest way and to a surprising degree by prating malicious words about Bethesdaism, when they might know, if not blinded by haste and ill-feeling, that there is not allowed a shade of that evil for which Bethesda and the socalled neutrals were judged.

 

Let them beware lest, beginning with ecclesiastical error like Ebrington Street, they themselves fall ere long into like heterodoxy. I pray that in God’s mercy our brethren may be spared such further sin and dishonour of the Lord. But detraction and neglect of Scripture and of facts, as well as inconsistency with all we have hitherto learnt and done before God, are a slippery by-path; from which it would be joy indeed and great grace from the Lord to see them recede.

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