The Ruin of the Church

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? 😀


About Joshua

Writer, husband, father, friend. View all posts by Joshua

22 responses to “The Ruin of the Church

  • Pridham

    Darby: 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.
    I think he might have a good point. In Jesus time he never came to recapture the glory of Israel (like many of his followers wanted him to do, Israel failed, in many respects, to be the light to the world, that she was called to be. Jesus instead was the light and just pointed man to the Father – it seems to me that maybe the church is not the light and instead of trying to restore the life of the church we simply need to do what Jesus did and be the light pointing again to the Father. Every group or church I have been a part of seemed more intent on “the group or church” than really pointing people to the Father. At least this has been my experience to this point in time. Chris

    • lawdawg23

      That’s a great point, Chris. I guess it all depends on how you view the church. Any group of people who are “ingrown” upon themselves rather than intent on simply being the expression of Christ and, as you say, pointing men to the Father, is not really the church, is it?

      Though I agree that the revelation of God to man is progressive, and will continue to progress all throughout the endless ages, I do believe God has given His final word in Christ. And that the church is the complement and expression of Christ in corporate form. In that sense I do not think there is any “beyond” such as there was in the case of natural Israel. The summation of God’s purpose lies with Christ and the church, and I really don’t see anything else coming down the road. Further and deeper, yes, but nothing beyond. Would you agree?

      • Pridham

        Good points Josh, Do I agree?, I could say yes but it really depends on what meaning is applied to names like “Christ” and “Church,” how do we define them. To say God has given his final word in Christ means what? Are we talking about an indwelling Christ or Historical Christ? Many would limit the words of Christ to what is written in the Bible. Others see Christ as alive today and living in the hearts of men speaking and guiding people today. I have heard men say “nothing beyond Christ” when in reality they were saying “nothing beyond the scriptures” or even “nothing beyond my understanding of the scriptures”. For me Christ is alive and ever expanding in my comprehension – “beyond Christ” is an impossibility but “beyond my understanding of Christ” is a given. The Church, my thoughts are still in flux on that – if the church is the “wilderness” experience then I would have to think their is purpose beyond the church. What really is the church and does she have a purpose? It seems to me that Jesus spoke more about the kingdom of God than what today is called the church. Could it be that Christ and seeking of the Kingdom of God is God’s purpose? Is the church the “end” or could it be that it is the “means” by which people collectively seek out the kingdom of God? If we put anything into the scriptures the reference to the church is seen in the wilderness experience with the promise land being a type or shadow of the kingdom of God on earth. Still working on words and their meanings 🙂 These are just some of the questions and thoughts I look at and ponder. What say you?

      • lawdawg23

        I share the same frustration you have, Chris, with those who “chase the Holy Spirit into a book” (in the words of Tertullian) in regards to those who only really mean “nothing beyond scripture” in that dead-letter kind of way which is so characteristic of present-day fundamentalism. However, I do still believe the indwelling Christ we know and follow today is one and the same as the historic Christ. The Man of history, Jesus of Nazareth, is often misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misapplied, this is true, but I don’t think that warrants the kind of separation your comment is implying (and I don’t think that’s really what you’re saying, either).

        I feel the same way regarding your comments on the church and the kingdom. In other words, I don’t think the two are at odds with each other. I believe the church here on earth is the visible expression-the product, you might say-of the kingdom of God moving and growing in the hearts of men.

        With your reference to the church in the wilderness, I assume you’re referring to what Stephen said in Acts 7? If so, I think that’s a pretty obscure passage to build a theory upon. What I mean is I don’t see anything else in scripture that lends itself to a view of the church being a transitional thing.

  • Michael Young

    Pilgrim Church. Great book. It literally changed my life and how I view the church. Good post.

    • lawdawg23

      Have you read Kennedy’s book Torch of the Testimony? Pretty much the same thing, just with a different spin.

    • Chris

      Josh, it really would not be my point to build a thought on one verse but more on the shadow images of the OT story. Here nor there on that, you say “I believe the church here on earth is the visible expression” I have used this expression as well but any more I realize that it has been a thought more than a reality or experience. It seems more people talk about the idea of church or church restoration than actually purse real loving relationship with the Christ and one another. The idea that a group of friends that love one another is the church is not accepted and yet it seems to me to meet more the definition of the disciples of Jesus. To your point of your post “how any group of believers coming together outside the confines….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.” My question to you would be why walk down the road of church restoration? You have to admit, most of our ideas or concepts of church comes from Paul’s writings not Jesus message. Don’t misunderstand I am not saying Paul was wrong but is today’s “church restoration” more about a real following of Christ or about following Paul’s writing about following Christ 2000 years ago. Israel failed to be a light to the world because they loved the idea of Israel more than loving God and knowing His heart. Is today’s church any different? Another thought is can people really group together without becoming “ingrown upon themselves” as you say – Is it even possible? I know I have never seen or heard of it happening. Could it be that “grouping” or “churching” is only meant to be for short periods and for a certain purpose at that time? I don’t know – what I do know is that all the work of reformers ends up being what the next group of reformers tries to reform. If a grouping or church ended with the “reformer” we would never need another reformation. Maybe each generation needs to be free to discover for itself how they should express Christ instead of trying to restore the way the past generations have. Who knows 🙂 But I am sure we can all figure it out, right? 🙂 🙂

      • lawdawg23

        I totally get what you’re saying, Chris. And I don’t disagree. A lot of what I’ve heard doesn’t stack up to what I see in reality, either. And it’s good to admit that, I think.

        What you said about temporarily churching together, and letting go when the time has come, reminds me of some stuff I’ve heard from Bill (Heroman) whom I think you know, right? If I remember right I recall him talking about the church kind of like a compost heap. When a particular group has come to the end of their life together, it is best to leave no organization, ect. behind, and just let it die. Then, in the lives of the people themselves and the people they influenced toward the Father, there is left behind a certain “fertilization” of the soil, such as in a compost heap, that is good ground for future works of God. Is that kind of what you’re getting at, too?

        Either way it’s like you said. I’m sure we’ll be able to figure it all in another couple years. At least most of it. 😉

  • Dawn

    I agree that to begin again as true remnants…even though there are Christians down the road who are not in unity with us, is still the right thing. As I read “The Practical Expression of the Church” by Witness Lee, I am reminded that they don’t need me to correct them, but to live in the fulness of Christ before them, and simply show them the freedom that comes in simply enjoying Christ in the unity of believers, free from the dissention which prevails in the organized denominations today. When given the chance, nourishing them with Christ can draw them into the unity of the believers. Until I experienced it for myself I didn’t realized how deeply I longed for it, but just had never experienced it or witnessed it.

  • lawdawg23

    Couldn’t have said it any better, Dawn. Especially this part: “When given the chance, nourishing them with Christ can draw them into the unity of the believers.” Truly this is an amazing thing to behold, and we are seeing it more and more these days, aren’t we?

  • brotherjohnny

    I totally get Darby’s point as I have wrestled with the exact same thing.

    Ever heard the story about the group of Brethren who had hung up a sign in their meeting place which declared “JESUS ONLY”?

    Sometime during a gathering “JES” mysteriously fell off the wall…

    I am becoming more and more convinced that only God can answer Jesus’ prayer that the church would be one.

    • lawdawg23

      Yeah, Johnny, I go back and forth with Darby myself, to be honest. It’s not hard to relate to what he’s saying. And I have heard the story you mentioned. It’s disappointing what happened with the Brethren movement after all the good things they recovered. It’s a sad story that has repeated itself many times through history.

  • Mike Otterson

    Quoting your challenging post:
    “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.”

    Evidence: Adam and Eve
    They are created and placed in the Garden of Eden, and before they can recreate (reproduce) another so that there is a pure blood line, Satan (through his wiles) spoils the root. All that come from Adam and Eve carry that spoilage.

    Noah’s drunkenness and Lot and his daughters are other examples of mankind’s failings. Each failure came as they were placed at the beginning of a new chapter in God’s purposes.

    The church of the Book of Acts doesn’t have that experience of failure at its root. Surely Satan was there to attempt to spoil the root, but he was kicked to the curb as Jesus built His church (His body) and the gates of hell could not prevail against it.

    Darby’s view of the church was a reformed vision of a deformed model. Again quoting your post: “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.'”

    Wasn’t he looking at the “church” that was reformed by Luther after being created by Constantine? If it was, that was not the “church” that was built on the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets. The church that was formed around 325AD fits Darby’s description; but that is not the church that is called the Body of Christ. The church of the 1st century was not spoiled and I believe we can still find a pure line of it today…somewhere.

  • lawdawg23

    Hey Mike! Thanks for the comment bro. You make some good points. Have you ever read The Pilgrim Church by Broadbent? Or Torch of the Testimony by John Kennedy? Both books tell the history of many of the Christians and churches that have existed outside the Roman Catholic and Protestant denominations from century one until now (or at least till their time of writing).

    • Mike Otterson

      Thanks Josh. The Pilgrim Church is one of the books that first opened my eyes to the church and where we’re at. It is also one of the books that got loaned out a lot and I’m not sure where my copy is. Also Secret of the Strength was the gasoline on the glowing ember of walking by faith for me.

      I’m enjoying this series of posts.

      • lawdawg23

        Awesome, Mike. I understand what you mean by loaning out books and not knowing where they are. 🙂 I’ve read parts of Secret of the Strength and really enjoyed what I read. Just haven’t had the time to peruse the entire thing.

  • Chris

    Josh, Yea kinda like that. I find that we “Christians”, esp. those wanting more, can get caught up into trying to find the right way or better way, a deeper experience are always trying to “become” instead of just “being”. We talk about finding rest in God but we continue wandering in circles. I am not saying that the wandering is not necessary I’m just finding that what I thought was leading to a destination was just releasing me from stuff I though was needed. In seeking the destination I began to realize that what I was really looking for was with me all along. Bonhoeffer talks about the “wish dream” i.e. our image of the church the reality is that every reformer has one and its not Christ its just his thought and image of Christ. Can a person really know what the church is? Is it something that can be known in the mind or is it something that you can only experience? I don’t know, but I have faith you will figure it all out and let me know 🙂

  • craig

    I too have found myself wrestling with Darby’s view. I think his decision is by far the easier one. I hear people say all the time that as long as the church is made up of flawed humans it won’t be perfect. that’s a given for sure. The church at colosse and philippi were not perfect. My question is “is it worth fighting for?” Should we be content with the state the church is in and just admit it will never be what it was meant to be? My latest response to my own questioning is similar to some of the other comments. Instead of pursuing a pure expression of the Church, I am trying to pursue Jesus because the way I see it, wherever you find the head, you’ll find the body, and vice versa (Matt.18:20).

  • lawdawg23

    That’s the trick, in my opinion, Craig. To me there is no difference between pursuing Christ and pursuing a pure expression of the church.

    When I look at you I don’t say, “Hey, there’s Craig’s head, and there’s his body.” I just say, “Hey, there’s Craig” because you are one person. But this is just what we’ve done with Christ and the church-separate them from one another. And this explains a lot, I think. As long as we see the church as some thing apart from Christ rather than what she is-the extension of His life in the earth-we will continue to maintain a false dichotomy which only perpetuates our problem.

    The “church” may have been a hindrance to our going on with the Lord while we were stuck in the institution, but outside the camp she is our only hope to knowing Him in His fullness. Christ and the church are one, IMO. 🙂

  • craig

    Amen. I think that explains the root of where all my discontent with the institutional church began years ago. I noticed that the body didn’t match the head. In fact the body seemed to have cut off the head and replaced it with multiple, smaller, much uglier heads :). To draw out this metaphor even further, I suppose now I’m at a place where I hear the voice of the head calling me to himself where I will find the body as well. I’m anxious for that day to come.

  • lawdawg23

    Awesome! I’m anxious for you as well, my brother. 🙂

  • Unity or love? « Called to Rebuild

    […] soil. Then at a certain point he came into contact with some men from among the Brethren (see here for the previous discussion on these guys). As Watchman observed the divisions which characterized […]

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