Tag Archives: church unity

Wanted: Weak Christians (3 of 5)

This is part three of a series called “Wanted: Weak Christians.” Here are the other posts:

Wanted: Weak Christians (1 of 5) — Introduction
Wanted: Weak Christians (2 of 5) — Who Are They?

Wanted: Weak Christians (3 of 5) — How Are They Indispensable?
Wanted: Weak Christians (4 of 5) — Advice to the Strong
Wanted: Weak Christians (5 of 5) — The Power of the Powerless


Why, then, does God include seemingly weak members in Christ’s body? Again, the answer is surprising: he includes such people because the rest of the body needs them. In a word, they are “indispensable.”

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. (1 Cor. 12:21-22)

Indispensable. Stop and weigh that word. Consider similar words from other translations, such as necessary or essential.1

Do others consider you a “weaker” person? Do you feel like one? God is speaking to you. He has intentionally included you in the composition of his church. He considers you “indispensable.” He does not look the other way when you walk into the room. He does not wish you weren’t there. He put you there, and he wants you. He needs you. More precisely, he needs you because others in Christ’s body need you. You are indispensable to other Christians.

How might seemingly weak persons be indispensable? Paul does not address this question directly, but the context suggests some answers:

The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. (1 Cor. 12:22-25)

HOW DOES GOD HONOR “WEAK” CHRISTIANS?

Let’s begin with God’s action in verse 24. Paul says that God has given “greater honor to the part that lacked it.” When and how did God do this? I see several possibilities.

One possibility recalls that the word “indispensable” is probably a euphemism for reproductive organs. Paul is talking about our “unpresentable” but “necessary” body parts—our “private parts,” to use a contemporary euphemism.  Witherington explains: “God composed the body by giving the parts that were lacking in appearance even more honor, bestowing on them the most crucial of functions, that is, reproduction.2

In this reading, God has honored the seemingly weaker members of Christ’s church by giving them important work to do, work that the church needs for its survival. In Kenneth Bailey’s interpretation of this passage, he concludes that Paul is talking about spiritual reproduction—more specifically, evangelism.3 This is too specific and narrow of an interpretation, though members of Christ’s church who seem to be weak do indeed play important and often overlooked parts in the broader task of promoting the gospel.4 In the history of redemption, we see how God repeatedly chose secondborns over firstborns in the bloodline of the Messiah. He entrusted women who were social outcasts for the same noble task—those who were barren (Sarah), sexually immoral (Tamar and Rahab), foreign (Ruth and Rahab again), or pregnant out of wedlock (Mary). In the New Testament, Jesus chose men like Matthew (a despised tax collector) and Paul (a former persecutor) among his apostles. Today, many of us could tell a story about some overlooked or socially backward church member who, at just the right time, possessed an insight or a gift that helped the church through a crucial moment. Truly, “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:27). “He gives gifts that the body needs to people who might otherwise be thought of as unimportant or dispensible,”5 calling them “indispensable” instead.

Again, when and how has God given “greater honor to the part that lacked it”? Here is another possible answer: Perhaps it happened when he honored it with clothing. God indeed gave “greater honor” to our private parts when he clothed Adam and Eve. He didn’t deck their face or hands with clothing; presumably he clothed their torsos, including their genitals and Eve’s breasts—the parts of their bodies that they used especially for love-making and child-rearing. Whether we consider our private parts to be full of shame or glory (and in this fallen world they bear a potent mix of both), God granted them the privacy they needed, thus honoring them.

Similarly, consider the honor that God has given to the lowly within Christ’s church, quite apart from any work they may or may not do. “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus said. “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.” On the contrary, “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt. 18:4-6). At the final judgment, our destiny will be determined in part by how we have treated “the least of these my brothers” (Matt. 25:40). Consider the emphasis the early church placed on caring for the poor, the sick, the widows, and the orphans. Consider how, time and again, Paul focused his exhortation primarily on the “strong,” urging the former to lovingly limit their freedoms out of consideration for the “weak.” God, by the teaching and example of Jesus and his apostles, has indeed “clothed” those who seem to be weak with greater honor, giving them the sort of deference that is normally reserved for royalty.

This leads closely to a third possible way that God has given “honor to the part that lacked it”: by God-given instinct, it is the same body parts that God covered in Eden that we are most careful to cover (or adorn in the marriage bed!) today. Martin explains:

The genitals may seem to be the most shameful part of the body, but our very attention to them—our constant care to cover them and shield them from trivializing and vulgarizing public exposure—demonstrates that they are actually the most necessary of the body’s members, those with the highest status.6

In clothing our bodies, we are imitating what God has already done.

In this reading, God grants honor to the seemingly weaker members of Christ’s body through the actions of the other members. Yes, Paul says that it is God who has given the honor. But a couple sentences earlier he also said this: “On those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor.” Clearly, one way God works is through the actions of his people. And when his people are merely imitating what he has already done, then, all the more clearly, it is God who is working through them. We will discuss this more in a minute.

There are at least three ways, then, that God has given “greater honor to the part that lacked it.” First, he entrusts important tasks to them. Second, in his upside-down kingdom he repeatedly exalts the lowly for no apparent reason but to demonstrate his generosity, saying that “the last will be first” (Matt. 20:16). And third, he gives honor to those who need it through the care of their brothers and sisters in Christ.

All three options are related, and all are true. I am not sure how many layers of meaning Paul had in mind as he wrote.7  I suspect, though, that our third option was uppermost in his mind.

It seems to me that Paul is saying something like the following: God designed our physical bodies so that our brains, eyes, and hands instinctively work together to honor our crucial reproductive organs with appropriate clothing. In the same way, God designed Christ’s body so that its true members instinctively work together to give honor to fellow Christians who appear weaker or less presentable, knowing they are valued by God and essential for the vitality of the church. In this way, God is giving “greater honor to the part that lacked it.”

Bessy’s attempt to apply 1 Corinthians 12:23 didn’t produce the results she was hoping for.

 

HOW ARE “WEAK” CHRISTIANS INDISPENSABLE?

We can now propose three answers to our initial question. How might seemingly weak persons be indispensable in Christ’s church? First, God often gives them important abilities and tasks that might be mishandled if left to the more glamorous members. Second, they provide essential opportunity for God to demonstrate his sovereign grace. And third, they draw other body members to participate in God’s work of raising up the lowly.

Let’s consider this third point more closely. We have done some theological guesswork to consider when and how God has given “greater honor to the part that lacked it.” The question that Paul explicitly answers, however, is why:

God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. (1 Cor. 12:24-25)

God’s design is that, as honor is given to the weaker members, the body avoids division. Instead of experiencing division, the members care for one another.

Wait a minute. This is ironic. Weakness can help prevent division? How many times have Christians parted ways because one considers another too weak? How many times have they divided over differing definitions of weakness, or differing ideas of how to “care for” those who are weak? How many times have I simply avoided getting too close to someone whose weakness leaves me feeling uncomfortable?

Weakness is supposed to lead to unity? And yet this is part of God’s upside-down master plan. How does it happen? Listen again to Paul:

God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. (1 Cor. 12:24-26)

Have you ever noticed that, no matter how much you may fight with your brother at home, you will defend him to the death in public? Something similar was true in the ancient honor-shame culture of Paul’s day. He may have been alluding to such social values here. David deSilva explains:

A principle Plutarch advocates [for sibling relationships] is that, where inequalities are unavoidable (for example, in age and thus seniority), the brother in the senior position must downplay his advantage out of sensitivity to the junior, while the brother in the ‘inferior’ position should respect the difference in status… In doing so, each honors the other and unity is preserved… This is also the ethos we find Paul promoting [in 1 Corinthians 12:22-26] as he considers the various gifts (even degrees of giftedness) within the church —those more visibly gifted must compensate by bestowing honor of [sic? perhaps “on”?] those less gifted in order “that there may be no dissension.”8

This sounds glorious, and glory is indeed the intended outcome. But the process is often painful. Sometimes honoring a “weaker” person means “covering” for them—enduring discomfort of our own in order to preserve their dignity. Thiselton is right: “Paradoxically, our very embarrassment over the so-called ‘less presentable’ parts leads to care and attention in how we cover or even adorn them.”9

Paul is similarly blunt: “If one member suffers, all suffer together.” He does not say this should happen; he says it does happen. Having a person with social difficulties, material needs, mental health challenges, or spiritual limitations in your church not only should cause you suffering; it will.

Chrysostom waxes eloquent on this point:

Often when a thorn has pierced the heel, the whole body feels it and becomes concerned. The back bends over, the abdomen and the legs join in, the hands, running forward like bodyguards and servants, remove the thorn, the head bows down, and the eyes look on with great concern. As a result, even if the foot is at a disadvantage because it cannot raise itself up, it is made equal by the lowering of the head and enjoys equal honor…

Again, if something happens to the eyes, all the members feel pain, all are made idle. The feet do not walk or the hands work, and the stomach does not enjoy its usual foods. Yet the ailment belongs to the eye. Why does your stomach waste away? Why are your feet constrained? Why are your hands fettered? Because they are bound up with the eyes, and the whole body suffers more than it can say. If it did not suffer as a whole, it would not trouble itself with all this care for one part.10

Read that last sentence again: “If it did not suffer as a whole, it would not trouble itself with all this care for one part.” Or, as Thiselton said above, “Our very embarrassment over the so-called ‘less presentable’ parts leads to care.”

This is God’s purpose, a hinge-point in his master plan for using “weak” Christians to produce unity in the church: mutual suffering, even mutual embarrassment, is intended to produce mutual care. Sharing in another’s suffering is divinely-orchestrated motivation. The experience of shared suffering moves us to care for the “weak” person whose suffering we are sharing.

And make no mistake: those who are deemed “weaker” often experience great suffering. It is suffering upon suffering not only to endure whatever weaknesses we possess, but also to be keenly aware that others perceive us as being weak. This awareness is often enough to weaken us still further, threatening a downward spiral of inability and shame. The suffering can be immeasurable.

But God’s design is different: Mutual suffering produces mutual care, and all that mutual sharing strengthens the unity of Christ’s body.

Further, all members are enabled to share together in honor and joy. After all, “we do not say to a victorious runner, ‘I congratulate your legs’; congratulations go to the person.”11 Thus, whether the honor is given to those who seem to more naturally deserve it or to those who seem to more naturally lack it, all share in the joy. Oh, for a greater outworking of this divine plan!

GOD’S COMPOSITION

Again, this is God’s composition. When Paul says that “God… composed the body” in this way, he emphasizes the noun “God”12 and then uses a telling verb. Thiselton explains:

The verb [used here by Paul]… is used of a painter mixing and blending colors, of composing a harmonious work or substance, or of compounding the various elements which together form the human body… The picture is of a craftsman mixing a compound, or of a musician composing a harmony, or of a divine agency creating a body by combining elements to form a compound. At all events, it is God who decides [what honor or function each person is given].13

God’s composition is not something you or I would have dreamed up. We all want to be the one equipped to give. We don’t want the embarrassment of needing someone else’s gift. We want to be the helper in every relationship, or at least not the one needing help. We want the insight, articulation, and charisma to lead convincingly and effectively. We want to be the one making the world better for others.

But what if…? What if your weakness holds a gift that, though unglamorous, is exactly what the church needs? What if your inability to lead well prepares you to be exactly the sort of follower some leader needs? What if your poverty enables someone else to give? What if your helplessness allows another to rely on or give God’s grace more fully? What if your dishonor allows another to share in the sufferings of Christ? What if your needs pull the church together in unity as they care for you?

What if what your world most needs is someone with needs?

What if your weakness is God’s gift to Christ’s church?


This series is nearly done, but we’ll meditate on that last question a little more in our final post. This series is not merely theoretical for me. I suspect it isn’t for you, either. Sometimes it isn’t easy to talk about those parts of our lives that lack honor. Sometimes it isn’t appropriate, either.

If you have something you’d like to share, though, please leave a comment below. And thanks for reading.

  1. Necessary is by far the most common English translation. Indispensable is the second most common, also frequent. Thiselton suggests the following: “Normal we should translate the Greek as necessary, since ἀνάγκη usually means necessity or compulsion. But since the “superior” or “strong” groups see themselves as the essence of the church, the wordplays implicit in vv. 22 and 23 may be best served by rendering it essential” (ibid., 1007). Some translations say something like much more necessary or the most necessary, but the words translated much more probably modify the whole argument rather than just the word necessary: “it is much more the case that the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” After all, though Paul says we give “greater honor” and “greater modesty” to those body parts that need it, he does not seem to be arguing for degrees of necessity (something the Corinthian “elites” affirmed), but that all are needed. (See Thiselton, ibid., 1006.)
  2. Ben Witherington, Conflict and Community in Corinth: Socio-rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 259.
  3. Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 344-45. Bailey draws seven parallels between natural and spiritual reproduction, including that each is “a very private affair” that is “sacred and honorable,” involving “deep relations” and “long-term commitments.” These may be true, but almost certainly were not in Paul’s mind when he wrote this passage.
  4. See The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission: Promoting the Gospel with More Than Our Lips, by John Dickson (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010) for the distinction between evangelism and gospel promotion and for a helpful discussion of New Testament teachings about how Christians with diverse gifts all play a role in the latter.
  5. Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 606.
  6. D. B. Martin, “Tongues of Angels and Other Status Indicators,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 1991, 51:567. Quoted in Garland, ibid., 596.
  7. Gordon D. Fee shares my uncertainty here: “It is less clear, however, precisely what Paul had in mind by ‘greater honor.’ Most likely he means that the parts that appear to be weak and less worthy are in fact accorded the greater honor of having important functions or receiving special attention. See The First Epistle to the Corinthians, rev. ed., NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 680.
  8. David A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship, & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 167-68, also 168 n. 17.
  9. Thiselton, ibid., 1009.
  10. John Chrysostom, Homily 31, ibid., 209.
  11. Thiselton, 1 Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical & Pastoral Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 210.
  12. Thiselton, First Epistle, 1010.
  13. Thiselton, ibid., 1010.

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What Does a True Follower of Jesus Look Like?

How can you identify a real Christian? What are the marks of a genuine Christian?

Mark Dever is famous for his list of “Nine Marks of a Healthy Church.” Others, including the Protestant reformers, produced lists of marks of the “true church.” (A church can be unhealthy but still true, so the latter lists are shorter.)

But I am asking primarily about the individual, not the group: How can you identify who truly belongs to Jesus?

There are many good, biblical ways to ask and answer this question. What does Christian mean, anyway? The term was first used in the ancient Syrian city of Antioch, and it appears that unbelievers were the ones who coined it. According to commentator Ben Witherington III, the term Christians (Χριστιανοι) in its original historical context meant “those belonging to, identified with, or adherents or followers of Christ.” (Pardon his poor grammar!) So in this post I’ll frame it this way: What does a true follower of Jesus look like?

I was motivated to ask this question because our little church gathering here in West Lake, Atlanta goes by the name of Followers of Jesus Church Atlanta (FJCA). Since we chose to bear that name, I decided I should examine the New Testament more closely to see whom we are supposed to be!

I shared my findings with our church and we discussed them together. Now I’ll share them with you.

First, some clarifications.

What follows is not a summary of the gospel. If it was, I’d need to be clearer on the work of Jesus.

Nor is it a description of the church. If it was, I’d need to discuss things like leadership and decision-making.

Some might fault this list because it focuses strongly on behavior. But this is a natural result of simply reading how the Bible, Jesus in particular, describes followers of Jesus. They are certainly people who believe certain things—and my list begins with belief, even if it doesn’t use the traditional language of faith. But they are also people who act, or at least ought to act, in certain ways. Again, this focus on behavior is because I am aiming to describe not the gospel itself, but a primary fruit of the gospel—people who are changed to follow Jesus.

This list is not intended to be comprehensive. It began with a simple concordance search for “follow.” Immediately several central themes (suffering for Jesus, selfless love, etc.) became clear. Though I expanded my search, there are too many related concepts to have found all the relevant biblical data. I did try to throw a wide net—sometimes perhaps too wide—but I realize now that even some basic concepts like repentance and faith could be strengthened. I expect I’ll update this list from time to time.

Lastly, perhaps this list would be better titled “marks of healthy followers of Jesus,” since no one follower exhibits all these qualities perfectly.

Read my summary paragraphs after each heading. Compare my summary statements with the Scriptures that follow. Perhaps you’ll find Jesus’ call to follow as challenging as I did!


Marks of True Followers of Jesus

Suffering witness: Jesus’s followers bear confident witness to his true identity as fully God and fully man—the Son of God, the promised Messiah-Christ-King, the Lamb of God who saves us from our sin, and the risen, ruling Son of Man. These followers are so devoted to Jesus that they willingly suffer for his sake, leaving all—possessions, family, and honor—for the sake of Jesus and the eternal rewards of his kingdom.

They bear witness of Jesus and his kingdom to each other, to the watching world, and to all of creation. They bear witness by word and action, by their gathered worship and their daily lives, and ultimately by their deaths.

In this way Jesus’ followers honor his greatest commandment—to love God with all our being.

Matt. 4:19; 16:15-17; 28:18-20; John 1:35-49; 6:66-69; 10:4-5, 27; 15:26-27;  1 Cor. 11:23-26; Col. 3:16-17; Rev 14:1-5; Matt 4:18-22; 8:19-22; 9:9; 10:37-39; 16:24-26; 19:21-23; Mark 8:34-37; 10:28-30; Luke 5:11, 28; 9:23-24, 57-62; John 12:23-26.

Loving service: Jesus’ followers imitate his way of loving others. They gladly suffer injustices without retaliating. They offer generous forgiveness to all who offend them, without holding grudges. They pray for their enemies and look for ways to creatively bless them, refusing to take up the sword. They are faithful in their marriages and all other relationship commitments.

Their whole lives are characterized by selfless service, for they imitate the One who came not to be served but to serve—who gave up his divine rights, washed his disciples’ feet, and laid down his life for the world.

In this way Jesus’ followers honor his second great commandment—to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Mark 15:41; John 12:26; Matt. 20:25-28; Mark 10:42-45; Luke 6:27-36; 22:25-27;  1 Pet. 2:20-24; 3:9-18; 5:1-3; Eph. 4:32; 5:1-2, 25; Col 3:13; John 13:14-16; Phil 2:4-7; Rom 15:1-3, 7.

Christian unity: Jesus’ followers know there is one Flock and one Shepherd. They affirm that all who belong to Christ, the Head, also belong to the Church, his Body. They rejoice that people of every culture, color, and class find oneness in Christ alone. They know Jesus has promised to build his own Church which he purchased with his own blood.

They don’t divide over human leaders, but they do honor the teaching and imitate the example of Jesus’ apostles, whom he appointed as a foundation for his true Church. They welcome all whom Christ has welcomed while disciplining those who falsely claim to belong to him.

In this way Jesus’ followers honor his final recorded prayer for them—that we may all be one in him.

Matt. 12:30; 16:18-19; 18:15-20; Mark 9:38-41; Luke 9:49-50; John 10:16; 17:20-23; Acts 2:42-47; 20:28;  1 Cor. 1:10-13; 3:3-9; 11:1; 12:12-13; Eph. 4:4-6; Rom. 15:5-7;  2 Tim 1:13-14; 3:14-17; Rev. 7:9-10, 17.

Spirit-powered obedience: Jesus’ followers honor his words by doing them. They do this by the Holy Spirit, their Helper sent by Jesus. They know they—like Jesus during his earthly life—will bear good fruit only by the power of the Spirit within them.

They expect the Spirit will bear witness to Jesus by miraculous signs and special graces given as he wishes. They also expect the Spirit will empower them to live clearly counter-cultural lives of moral purity, relational integrity, and neighbor- and enemy-love—lives of humility, contentment, and trust in their heavenly Father.

In this way Jesus’ followers honor the great commission he gave them—to make disciples who are taught to do all that he commanded.

Matt. 28:18-20; Luke 6:46-49; John 14:15, 21-24;  1 John 2:4-6; Matt. 5-7; 22:37-40; Acts 10:38; Luke 3:21-22; 4:1-2, 14-15, 18; Luke 3:16; 11:13; 12:11-12; 24:49; John 14:16-17, 25-26; 15:26; 16:7-15; Acts 1:4-5, 8; 2:1-4, 32-33, 38-39; Gal. 5:16-25.


Here is a PDF version of the same list:

Download Here

Marks of True Followers of Jesus

Where are North American Christians most falling short of these marks? How would you summarize the biblical picture of a true Christian? Share your insights in the comments below.


Endnote: As I did my research, I ended up with about seven main points. I wanted to be more concise, in case we end up using some version of this list as a church values statement someday. So I combined points until I had only four somewhat memorable headings. Many other combinations could have been equally possible, however. For example, combining “suffering” with “love” rather than with “witness” would also have expressed something that is clearly biblical: “Suffering love.” “Spirit-powered unity” also sounds good! The richness of Scripture cannot be summarized in any four, seven, or nine marks.


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In Which I Am Surprised to Agree With John Nelson Darby

I just finished a book called The Scofield Bible: Its History and Impact on the Evangelical Church, by R. Todd Mangum and Mark S. Sweetham. I recommend the book. It is slightly repetitive at points, perhaps because of the joint authorship, and it might be more engaging if it offered more specific examples and fewer general observations. But it is a very informative and apparently fair discussion of both the Scofield Bible (1909) and the man who created it, Cyrus Ingerson Scofield (1843-1921).

Readers are sure to learn something new about one of the most powerful influences that have shaped the modern American evangelical landscape. I also noted parallels between Scofield’s project and the theological and publishing efforts of Mennonite fundamentalists of the same era, such as Daniel Kauffman. In both cases, I believe, the church was almost certainly better off thanks to the efforts of such leaders. Yet their best intentions and most helpful efforts were unintentionally marred by significant weaknesses only clearly visible after subsequent generations used their writings. This is both encouraging and sobering for writers today.

Scofield was a skilled Bible teacher, but rarely original. His many influences include the Geneva Bible (the first annotated English Bible, millenial in nature rather than ammillenial as Catholics of the time), James Ussher’s historical dating system (adopted by Scofield though modified by the “gap theory” in Genesis 1), European evangelicalism (perhaps including Isaac Watt’s musings on dispensations, which nearly match Scofield’s), John Nelson Darby (dispensational promoter of a two-stage return of Christ and a secret rapture), Southern Presbyterianism (turning from postmillenialism to the more pessimistic premillenialism after losses in the Civil War and advocating the curse of Ham—the idea that black people are destined to be servants), and the American fundamentalist-evangelical movement of which he was a part (which included prophecy conferences).

These are some of his most prominent influences, but I’m only providing a sample of examples of how these influences shaped Scofield.

For the rest of this post I want to focus on one of Scofield’s influences, J. N. Darby (1800-1882, a leader among the Plymouth Brethren in Ireland), and on only one of his themes, the nature of the church—since this theme directly relates to a main theme of my blog.

In short, Darby’s beliefs about the church shaped his beliefs about prophecy. And what surprised me is that, while I disagree with many of Darby’s beliefs about prophecy, I identify with some of his thinking about church.

First, some excerpts from the book by Mangum and Sweetam:

One of the most interesting things about the way in which Darby’s interpretation of prophetic Scripture emerged is that his development of dispensationalism was a result of his disaffection with the ecclesiastical status quo. Especially in light of his later complaints that those he spoke to during his visits to the United States enthusiastically absorbed his prophetic teaching while ignoring almost entirely his views on church order, it is important to not that with Darby eschatology followed from (and was an implication of) ecclesiology. (pp. 65-66, bold added)

In the years following his conversion, Darby became increasingly disenchanted with the Church of Ireland… The primary cause is clear. While studying Scripture, Darby became increasingly dismayed with the Erastian nature of the Church of Ireland—its status as the established church of the state. (pp. 64-65, bold added)

Erastian: “of, characterized by, or advocating the doctrine of state supremacy in ecclesiastical affairs” (Merriam-Webster dictionary). (The term is named after Thomas Erastus, a Zwinglian theologian who died in 1583.)

As I read this, I’m thinking: Darby sounds like a budding Anabaptist! The Anabaptists also rejected the church-state union promoted by magisterial reformers such as Zwingli.

More from Mangum and Sweetnam:

The Church of Ireland during this period enjoyed a unique position. Like the Church of England, it was the church established by law enjoying a special relationship with the apparatus of the British rule in Ireland. (p. 65)

This special relationship between the Protestant Church of Ireland and the British government led to oppression of the Catholic majority in Ireland, causing growing unrest.

Darby’s disgust and anger grew when his archbishop directed that oaths of allegiance to the British Commonwealth be imposed on anyone joining the church. Catholic conversions [which had been plentiful under Darby’s gospel preaching] completely dried up as religious faith became conflated and confused with political allegiance. (p. 65, bold added)

It was ecclesiological concern that led to Darby’s rethinking of prophecy. Up to this point, he seems to have held to [a] sort of postmillennial scheme… His own evangelistic efforts were a key part of the global spread of the gospel, which would eventually bring about the millennial bliss and the conditions for Christ’s return. His archbishop’s action and its consequences were probably not the only thing that changed this. But they did prove to be the legendary straw that broke the camel’s back. In the aftermath of these events, Darby became deeply pessimistic about the future of the world and disillusioned about the prospects of global evangelization and the growing success of the gospel…

Considerations on the Nature and Unity of the Church of Christ (1828) was Darby’s first tract, and it outlined his emerging understanding of the nature of the church. Christ’s church, Darby argued, was spiritual in nature. Its unity was not, could not, be the product of human effort—it was a work of the Spirit alone. The Church of Ireland was following a path well worn by the churches through the centuries, a path that led to involvement in human power and civil government and away from the pristine simplicity of dependence on the Holy Spirit. These churches had fallen from their original position because they had lost sight of their heavenly calling and had become mired in human mechanism…

Darby gave practical expression to these views by resigning his curacy… He was discovering an alternative ecclesiology shaped by insights similar to his own, which were emerging in the small gatherings of believers that were eventually to develop into the Brethren movement.

By the time Darby’s first writing on prophecy was published in 1829—Reflections upon “The Prophetic Inquiry” and the Views Advanced in Ithe had, in line with his pessimistic view of the health of the church, adopted a clearly premillennial position. (pp. 66-67, bold added)

Up to this point, Darby still sounds like he could be one of the early Anabaptists. They, too, insisted on separation of church and state, and at least some of them held premillennial understandings. (I am not informed enough to be more specific than this on Anabaptist prophetic understandings.)

But as Darby further developed his prophetic understanding, he developed views very different from the early Anabaptists—views which some Anabaptists today promote, however, thanks in part to the mediating influence of the Scofield Bible.

One of the most important features of the dispensationalism that developed from Darby and that would be embodied in Scofield’s notes is the recognition of a distiction between Israel and the church… The longer tradition of Reformed exegesis had postulated a supersessionist, or replacement theology, mode of exegesis. Broadly speaking, this suggested that Israel had been replaced by the church as the people of God, its promises and position handed over wholesale because of their failure of obedience. This understanding of the relationship between God’s people in the Old Testament and in the New Testament was a standard feature of most biblical interpretation from the medieval period, through the magisterial reformers, and down to the present day. (pp. 69-70)

While the Anabaptists agreed that it was now the church, not ethnic Israel, who were the people of God, they differed from the magisterial reformers in their understanding of the Christian’s relationship to the OT. The magisterial reformers looked to the OT to support practices such as military participation and infant baptism, but the Anabaptists insisted more strongly that Christ’s teachings superseded the Law of Moses.

Both the Anabaptists and Darby were concerned that the “flat Bible” approach of the magisterial reformers was a problem, and that it supported a state-church union, which was also a problem. The church did not hold exactly the same position as Israel had. But Darby’s theological solution to this misunderstanding was different from the Anabaptist solution.

In his view this conflation of two distinct groups [Israel and the church] whom God had dealt with in different ways was little sort of disastrous. It was this mistake that underwrote the Erastianism [state-church union] that had so concerned him in earlier years; it was this mistake that obscured the church’s heavenly calling and nature. Israel had been, continued to be, and eternally would be God’s earthly people—his purposes for them would be worked out on earth. The church was a heavenly entity, entirely separate from Israel, and with a prospect that was purely heavenly…

This distinction between the peoples of God and his deep pessimism about the prospects of the contemporary church led Darby to the dispensations that gave their name to dispensationalism. (p. 70, bold added)

In summary: For the Anabaptists, there was both continuity and discontinuity between Israel and the church. The continuity was rooted in the church’s identity as the children of Abraham, trusting in Christ just as Abraham trusted in God’s promise, thus becoming heirs of the promises given to Abraham. The discontinuity was found in how Christ and the apostles interpreted these OT promises, with the kingdom of God (spiritual Israel) being now not an earthly kingdom but a heavenly one. Like the magisterial reformers, the Anabaptists did not seem to see any special role for ethnic Israel after the coming of Christ. Unlike them, they did not believe that the church inherited the political and military role that national Israel had carried. (I am making generalizations here, and writing from memory as an amateur, so I invite your help if you want to add nuance to this historical summary.)

Darby’s solution to the church-state problem was different from either the Anabaptists or the magisterial reformers. Rather than positing an end to God’s special purposes for ethnic Israel, he separated the church and Israel entirely. God had contrasting but ongoing plans for both, so that the church and Israel run on separate but parallel tracks until the end of the age, each with different duties and hopes.

Thus Darby and the Anabaptists came to theological understandings that were very different. Yet both understandings accomplished one same result: the division of the church-state union.

I was familiar with Darby’s prophetic conclusions, but did not know about his concept of church. To complete this post, I’d like to share some excerpts I particularly enjoy from Darby’s first tract, Considerations on the Nature and Unity of the Church of Christ (bold added):

It is not a formal union of the outward professing bodies [church denominations] that is desirable; indeed it is surprising that reflecting Protestants should desire it: far from doing good, I conceive it would be impossible that such a body could be at all recognised as the church of God. It would be a counterpart to Romish unity; we should have the life of the church and the power of the word lost, and the unity of spiritual life utterly excluded. Whatever plans may be in the order of Providence, we can only act upon the principles of grace; and true unity is the unity of the Spirit, and it must be wrought by the operation of the Spirit… The Reformation consisted not, as has been commonly said, in the institution of a pure form of church, but in setting up the word, and the great Christian foundation and corner stone of “Justification by faith,” in which believers might find life… He is an enemy to the work of the Spirit of God who seeks the interests of any particular denomination; and that those who believe in “the power and coming of the Lord Jesus Christ” ought carefully to keep from such a spirit; for it is drawing back the church to a state occasioned by ignorance and non-subjection to the word, and making a duty of its worst and antichristian results. This is a most subtle and prevailing mental disease, “he followeth not us [Mark 9:38],” even when men are really Christians. Let the people of God see if they be not hindering the manifestation of the church by this spirit. I believe there is scarcely a public act of Christian men (at any rate of the higher orders, or of those who are active in the nominal churches), which is not infected with this; but its tendency is manifestly hostile to the spiritual interests of the people of God, and the manifestation of the glory of Christ. Christians are little aware how this prevails in their minds; how they seek their own, not the things of Jesus Christ; and how it dries up the springs of grace and spiritual communion; how it precludes that order to which blessing is attached-the gathering together in the Lord’s name. No meeting, which is not framed to embrace all the children of God in the full basis of the kingdom of the Son, can find the fulness of blessing, because it does not contemplate it—because its faith does not embrace it.

Where two or three are gathered together in His name, His name is recorded there for blessing [Matt. 18:20]; because they are met in the fulness of the power of the unchangeable interests of that everlasting kingdom in which it has pleased the glorious Jehovah to glorify Himself, and to make His name and saving health known in the Person of the Son, by the power of the Spirit. In the name of Christ, therefore, they enter (in whatever measure of faith) into the full counsels of God, and are “fellow-workers under God.”… The Lord has made known His purposes in Him, and how those purposes are effected. “He hath made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself, that in the dispensation of the fulness of times, he should gather together in one all things in Christ, whether they be things in heaven, or things on earth, even in him, in whom we also have received an inheritance” [Eph. 1:9-11]—in one and in Christ. In Him alone therefore can we find this unity; but the blessed word (who can be thankful enough for it? will inform us further. It is as to its earthly members “gathering together in one, the children of God who are scattered abroad.” And how is this? “That one man should die for them.” [John 11:50-52] As our Lord in the vision of the fruit of the travail of His soul declares, “I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will drawn all men unto me: this he said signifying what death he should die.” [John 12:32] It is then Christ who will draw – will draw to Himself (and nothing short of or less than this can produce unity, “He that gathereth not with him, scattereth” [Matt. 12:30]); and draw to Himself by being lifted up from the earth. In a word, we find His death is the centre of communion till His coming again, and in this rests the whole power of truth. Accordingly, the outward symbol and instrument of unity is the partaking of the Lord’s supper – for we being many are one “bread, one body, for we are all partakers of that one bread.” [1 Cor. 10:17] And what does Paul declare to be the true intent and testimony of that rite? That whensoever “ye eat this bread and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come.” [1 Cor. 11:26] Here then are found the character and life of the church, that into which it is called, that in which the truth of its existence subsists, and in which alone is true unity. It is showing forth the Lord’s death, by the efficiency of which they were gathered, and which is the fruitful seed of the Lord’s own glory; which is indeed the gathering of His body, “the fulness of him that filleth all in all” [Eph. 1:23]; and shewing it forth in the assurance of His coming, “when he shall come to be glorified in his saints and to be admired in all them that believe.” [2 Thess. 1:10] Accordingly the essence and substance of unity, which will appear in glory at His coming, is conformity to His death, by which that glory was all wrought…

Unity, the unity of the church, to which “the Lord added daily such as should be saved” [Acts 2:47]…, was when none said anything was his own, and “their conversation was in heaven” [Phil. 3:20]; for they could not be divided in the common hope of that. It knit men’s hearts together by necessity. The Spirit of God has left it upon record, that division began about the goods of the church, even in their best use, on the part of those interested in them; for there could be division, there could be selfish interests. Am I desiring believers to correct the churches? I am beseeching them to correct themselves, by living up, in some measure, to the hope of their calling. I beseech them to shew their faith in the death of the Lord Jesus, and their boast in the glorious assurance which they have obtained by it, by conformity to it – to shew their faith in His coming, and practically to look for it by a life suitable to desires fixed upon it. Let them testify against the secularity and blindness of the church; but let them be consistent in their own conduct.

While the spirit of the world prevails (and how much it prevails, I am persuaded few believers are at all aware) spiritual union cannot subsist… For, let us ask, is the church of God as believers would have it? Do we not believe that it was, as a body, utterly departed from Him? Is it restored so that He would be glorified in it at His appearing? Is the union of believers such as He marks to be their peculiar characteristic? Are there not unremoved hindrances? Is there not a practical spirit of worldliness in essential variance with the true termini of the gospel – the death and coming again of the Lord Jesus as Saviour?…

Unity is the glory of the church; but unity to secure and promote our own interests is not the unity of the church, but confederacy and denial of the nature and hope of the church. Unity, that is of the church, is the unity of the Spirit, and can only be in the things of the Spirit, and therefore can only be perfected in spiritual persons. It is indeed the essential character of the church, and this strongly testifies to the believer its present state. But, I ask, if the professing church seeks worldly interests, and if the Spirit of God be amongst us, will it then be the minister of unity in such pursuits as these? If the various professing churches seek it, each for itself, no answer need be given. But if they unite in seeking a common interest, let us not be deceived; it is no better, if it be not the work of the Lord. There are two things which we have to consider. First, Are our objects in our work exclusively the Lord’s objects, and no other? If they have not been such in bodies separate from each other, they will not be in any union of them together. Let the Lord’s people weigh this. Secondly, let our conduct be the witness of our objects. If we are not living in the power of the Lord’s kingdom, we certainly shall not be consistent in seeking its ends. Let it enter our minds, while we are all thinking what good thing we may do to inherit eternal life, to sell all that we have, take up our cross, and follow Christ…

So far as men pride themselves on being Established, Presbyterian, Baptist, Independent, or anything else, they are antichristian. How then are we to be united? I answer, it must be the work of the Spirit of God. Do you follow the testimony of that Spirit in the word as is practically applicable to your consciences, lest that day take you unawares?… Professed churches (especially those established) have sinned greatly in insisting on things indifferent and hindering the union of believers, and this charge rests heavily on the hierarchies of the several churches. Certainly order is necessary; but where they said, ‘the things are indifferent and nothing in themselves: therefore you must use them for our pleasure’s sake,’ the word of the Spirit of Christ says, ‘they are indifferent: therefore we will yield to your weakness, and not offend a brother for whom Christ died.’ Paul would have eaten no meat while the world endured, if it had hurt the conscience of a weak brother, though the weak brother was in the wrong. And why insisted on? Because they gave distinction and place in the world. If the pride of authority and the pride of separation were dissolved (neither of which are of the Spirit of Christ), and the word of the Lord taken as the sole practical guide, and sought to be acted up to by believers, we shall be spared much judgment, though we shall not perhaps find altogether the glory of the Lord, and many a poor believer, on whom the eye of the Lord is set for blessing, would find comfort and rest… Let believers remove the hindrances to the Lord’s glory, which their own inconsistencies present, and by which they are joined to the world, and their judgments perverted. Let them commune one with another, seeking His will from the word, and see if a blessing do not attend it; at any rate it will attend themselves; they will meet the Lord as those that have waited for Him, and can rejoice unfeignedly in His salvation…

Let me ask the professing churches, in all love, one question. They have often professed to the Roman Catholics, and truly too, their unity in doctrinal faith, why then is there not an actual unity? If they see error in each other, ought they not to be humbled for each other? Why not, as far as was attained, mind the same rule, speak the same thing; and if in anything there was diversity of mind (instead of disputing on the footing of ignorance), wait in prayer, that God might reveal this also unto them. Ought not those who love the Lord amongst them, to see if they could not discern a cause? Yet I well know that, till the spirit of the world be purged from amongst them, unity cannot be, nor believers find safe rest…

I would solemnly repeat what I said before – the unity of the church cannot possibly be found till the common object of those who are members of it is the glory of the Lord, who is the Author and finisher of its faith: a glory which is to be made known in its brightness at His appearing, when the fashion of this world shall pass away, and therefore acted up to and entered upon in spirit when we are planted together in the likeness of His death. Because unity can, in the nature of things, be there only; unless the Spirit of God who brings His people together, gather them for purposes not of God, and the counsels of God in Christ come to nought. The Lord Himself says, “That they all may be one; as thou Father art in me and I in thee, that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them, that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.” [John 17:21-23]

Oh that the church would weigh this word, and see if their present state do not preclude necessarily their shining in the glory of the Lord, or of fulfilling that purpose for which they were called. And I ask them, do they at all look for or desire this? or are they content to sit down and say, that His promise is come utterly to an end for evermore?

Yet will He surely gather His people and they shall be ashamed.

I have gone beyond my original intention in this paper; if I have in anything gone beyond the measure of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, I shall thankfully accept reproof, and pray God to make it forgotten.


While I admit that I wish some of Darby’s prophetic teachings would disappear (including from among Anabaptists), I am thankful that this tract of Darby’s was not forgotten. I might nuance a few things differently. But what a powerful call to examine our own hearts! Are we conformed to Christ’s death in a manner that will make true Christian unity possible?

I invite your response. Did you learn anything that surprised you about Darby or Scofield? Do you resonate with Darby’s words about the unity of the church? Share your insights in the comments below.


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