Two weeks ago I went with some brothers to visit a church in a town about two hours north of us. There are some saints meeting there with whom we’ve had a relationship for nearly two years now, who once belonged to a movement known as the “local churches.” The local churches take no name but the name of the city in which they gather, having seen all the error highlighted here in previous posts and concluding that the answer to such confusion is for a group of believers to return to what they call the “ground of oneness” and meet simply as the church in their town, representative of how God views the entire body-as one-in that city.
These churches originally came into being through the ministry of a man named Witness Lee, who was a co-worker of Watchman Nee in mainland China before the Communist revolution. As the story goes, as a young man Watchman Nee had a substantial ministry in preaching the gospel and gathering believers together for ministry. From the beginning, the work the Lord accomplished through him and his fellow brothers was apart from the denominational missions represented throughout China. But as their witness grew Watchman began to seek counsel from those he could on how to best express the life of Christ in a way that was organic to their Chinese 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 the Brethren movement in its latter days-a movement originally born out of a desire for unity in the Body of Christ-he became deeply troubled. In some places there would be maybe three or four congregations of Brethren in a single city, sometimes with meeting places only a few streets away from each other! The believers who were part of these congregations had a separate life together and held to separate administrations. To Watchman, this was not unity. It was the same thing he saw in the denominations, only on a smaller scale. When a man would be offended by his brother, instead of bearing the cross and finding fellowship again as members of the one Body of Christ, he would simply leave that assembly and go to another. Here perhaps is the chief error of congregationalism, and it was something Watchman had no desire to see reproduced in the churches being raised up through his ministry in his homeland. How could the believers in China go forward in the days to come and give to their nation a pure and undivided expression of Christ? This was his burden. So he returned to his New Testament, and what he found there was that the pattern of the churches in the first century was according to locality. The church in Jerusalem, the church in Laodicea, the church in Ephesus, ect. When “churches” were spoken of in the plural, it was always in regards to a region greater than a city or town, such as “the churches of Galatia.” Thus Watchman came to the realization of what he called the “boundary” of the church, which was the boundary of the city in which the church was located. “Anything larger than the city is not the church,” he said, “and anything smaller than the city is not the church.”
All this is beside the point, however. The saints we recently visited had their beginnings on this foundation. For years they were part of a movement which stressed this aspect of truth-of the Lord’s “recovery” as they call it-and though they themselves are no longer part of the larger “local church” movement (which is a whole other story in itself), these brothers and sisters still hold to and stand upon the ground that the Body of Christ is one, and this oneness must be given practical expression.
There was a brother at the meeting who is a full-time worker among some of these churches who gather across the state of Ohio. He spoke briefly on what he is learning through his own study of church history, and how ironic it is to him that of all the groups throughout history who “came out” of the institutional church of their day in a desire to return to true unity, it was often these very groups who became the most strongly divisive in the end. The answer, he said, is not found in making “oneness” our goal, for this will only result in division, but simply to love one another as Christ has loved us. True, organic oneness issues out of brotherly love. This is the only way, and this, as he quoted from John 13, is the Lord’s one unique command. He did not command us to be one, He commanded us to love one another. Love, not oneness, is the goal we should seek. If we love each other we will be one, and our oneness will be practically expressed for all to see. Otherwise any stand we may take for “oneness” will ultimately become the point at which we divide, as we place stipulations and tests of fellowship on other brothers and sisters in Christ to see if they are as “one” as we are.
At any rate, I found this to be a wonderfully fresh emphasis from a man who definitely has experience in this way and knows what he is talking about. If unity is truly what we seek, let us love one another. And though it be tested in a thousand ways, let our love for one another be real. Or, in the words of another great man of God from long ago, “let us not love in word only, but in deed and in truth.”