This is part five of a series on church unity. You might want to check out the previous four posts if you haven’t already before diving into this one.
Early in the 19th Century there lived a man named John Nelson Darby. Even if you’ve never heard of this guy, chances are you’ve been influenced by him in some way or another, whether directly or indirectly. An Anglican minister for a number of years, Darby shed his ecclesiastical robes after stumbling across a gathering of believers who were meeting together in what they liked to call the “unity of the Body” apart from any clergy or denominational distinctions. From that point on Darby became a prominent teacher among these “Brethren”, or “Plymouth Brethren,” as their movement later came to be called.
Aside from his many other contributions to the thought and teaching of present-day evangelicalism, Darby also put forth his notion of what has been called the “church in ruin.” This was basically his belief that in the present dispensation, like every other, man had immediately failed in the purpose of God and brought to ruin His intentions for that particular age. The church, in Darby’s estimation, was no different. “There was,” he taught, “a moral departure from God in the bosom of Christianity.” “… this dispensation as well as any other failed and broke off in the very outset… it broke down in the commencement-no sooner fully established than it proved a failure.”
These quotations are taken from E.H. Broadbent’s classic work, The Pilgrim Church. In it Broadbent chronicles the early development of the Brethren movement, including Darby’s influence and his teaching on the church in ruin.
“In scripture, he wrote, we see: ‘1)The union of all the children of God; 2)The union of all the children of God in each locality;… this state of things, appearing in God’s Word, has ceased to exist, and the question to be solved is no other than this: How ought the Christian to judge and act when a condition of things set before us in the Word no longer exists? You will say, he is to restore it. Your answer is itself one proof of the evil. It supposes that there is power in ourselves. I would say, listen to the Word and obey it, as it applies to such a state of declension. Your answer takes for granted two things: first, that it is according to the will of God to re-establish the economy or dispensation on its original footing after is has failed; and, secondly, that you are both able and authorized to restore it.’”
So we see that Darby held to the common two-fold view of the church “universal,” composed of all those everywhere who place their faith in Jesus Christ, and the church “local,” which he correctly identified as being composed of all the believers in Christ in a particular locality. He then went on to state the obvious fact that this condition is no longer represented practically anywhere in the world today. That is, nowhere do we see a true unity of believers in Christ, and therefore the “church” as she is revealed in the pages of scripture has ceased to be. Thus we have the “church in ruin.”
To Darby, however, it was not proper to try to recover the original “ground” of the church. In his view the purpose of this age had been lost, and therefore it would only be pride for a person or a group of people to attempt to recapture God’s original intention.
“…Before I can accede to your pretensions I must see, not only that the church was such in the beginning, but, moreover, that it is according to God’s will that it be restored to its primitive glory; and, furthermore, that a voluntary union of ‘two or three’ or two or three and twenty, or several such bodies, are each of them entitled, in any locality, to take the name of the Church of God, when that church originally was an assemblage of all believers in any given locality.”
To be sure, Darby saw the error of denominationalism and left it. But he wondered-and this is the point of my post-how any group of believers coming together outside the confines of organized Christendom could honestly take the ground of the church in their locality-thus bearing the name of the church in their town-when there were other Christians living just down the road who in all actuality were members of the same Body, yet did not possess God’s view of the church and therefore chose to gather as separate from the other believers in their city.
All I can say is, it’s a darn good question! But it’s one we have to face if we’re going to walk down this road of church restoration. No doubt there have been countless men through the centuries who have asked themselves the same thing. Darby settled upon his own answer, and he pursued the Lord according to his decision. There have been others who see it differently, though, believing that while it is true God’s people today are as scattered as the children of Israel were in their captivity in Babylon, the purpose of God yet remains the same and He would in fact be pleased to have (if only) a remnant go back and rebuild His House on His chosen ground. For in the words of Witness Lee, “The Lord Jesus never forgets what He begins.”
You can probably guess which one I am. The question is, which one are you? 😀