The Headship of Christ in the gathering of the church is the theme of two of the most popular pages on this blog: 1. the Resource page for the book, Principles for the Gathering of Believers Under the Headship of Jesus Christ, by Gospel Fellowships, (the second most popular page on the blog.), and, 2. “The Headship of Christ in the Gathering of the Church“, the most popular page of my original writings. The popularity of these two resources is an encouraging sign that there is a deep hunger in the heart of many for Jesus Christ to once again be given His rightful place in the Church as her unrivaled, immediate, and functional Head.
Not too long ago I came across a series of published letters by C.H. Mackintosh (1820-’96) written to a friend concerning his reflections on the state of the Church in his day. In one of those letters, Bro. Mackintosh recounts the very beginnings of what came to be known as the Brethren Movement, which he was intricately involved with from its early days. I was greatly encouraged by this historical account of large numbers of believers coming out of the apostate establishments of religion of their day to meet simply in the Name of Christ and under His Headship through the power of the Holy Spirit. I have posted that section of the letter below. I pray that you are encouraged by it!
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“It is now close upon half a century since a very remarkable movement commenced in Great Britain and Ireland. At that time many of the Lord’s beloved people were led to see that there was something radically wrong in the various religious organizations of the day. Some, it may be, felt the death and desolation, the dearth, darkness and poverty of all around. They longed for something which the existing religious machinery failed to supply. There was a thirsting for Christian fellowship, and a longing for a higher range of truth than was to be found either in the National Establishment or in the various dissenting bodies.
Others, again, were led to search the Scriptures, and to compare what they found in these precious writings with the existing condition of things around them in the entire professing church, and they were not only led, but forced to the conclusion that the whole professing church was in a condition of utter and hopeless ruin — that there was not a single ecclesiastical polity, not a single clerical order, not a single theological creed, throughout the length and breadth of Christendom, that could stand the test of holy Scripture — that there was no such thing to be found as a faithful expression of the Church of God as seen in the New Testament — no expression of the One Body, no such thing as an assembly of believers gathered simply to the Name of Jesus, and practically owning the presence, power, rule and authority of the Holy Ghost.
Further, as regards the grand question of ministry, they looked in vain throughout the various religious systems, for anything approaching to the truth as taught in the New Testament. Whether they examined the Greek, Latin, Anglican or Scotch Establishments, or, on the other hand, the various popular bodies of the day, they found that whether under the title of Bishop, Priest, Deacon or Minister, human authority was absolutely essential to the exercise of every branch of ministry, so called. If a man possessed all the gifts of the apostle Paul himself, he dared not preach or teach Jesus Christ, unless he was licensed or authorized by man; whereas, on the contrary, though destitute altogether of spiritual gifts, nay, even of spiritual life itself, yet, if authorized, ordained, licensed or approved by man, he might preach and teach in that which professed to be the church of God. Man’s authority, without Christ’s gift, was quite sufficient. Christ’s gift without man’s authority was not.
All this they found was diametrically opposed to the Word of God. When they turned, for example, to such a Scripture as Ephesians 4, they found, that ministry, in all its branches, had its source in a risen and glorified Head in heaven. ‘To every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ.’ Not a syllable about human authority or human ordination, in any shape or form — not a sound of such a thing, or of anything approaching to it, but the very reverse. It is simply “the gift of Christ” or nothing at all. ‘Wherefore He saith, when He ascended up on High, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men . . . .and He gave some, apostles; and some prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers.'”
“Many earnest Christians, in various places, feeling deeply the state of the professing church, were led to separate from the different denominations of the day. Very few, if any of them, knew exactly what they were going to do; but they felt it impossible to go on any longer with what was so palpably opposed to the Word of God. The old proverb: “Birds of a feather flock together” had its illustration in the history of those early brethren. They were all dissatisfied with what they saw around them; and it may be truly said of many of them, “They went out not knowing whither they went”. They could not continue in connection with plain and palpable error. They were sick of the worldliness and death of the professing church; they longed for something better; they came out, one from this, another from that, another from something else; they met outside and they saw no reason why they could not go on together, or why they might not break bread together as the early Christians did, counting on the Lord to be with them and to enable them to edify one another as He might bestow the needed gift and grace.
Amongst those who thus separated from the various organizations were some men of considerable gift, moral weight, intellectual power, and intelligence — clergymen, barristers, solicitors, military and naval officers, physicians, and men of high position and property. Their secession, as you may suppose, caused a very considerable stir and drew forth much opposition. Many a link of friendship was snapped; many a fondly cherished companionship was broken up; many sacrifices were made; much trial and sorrow was encountered; much reproach, obloquy, and persecution had to be endured. I cannot attempt to enter into details, nor have I any desire to do so. It could serve no useful ends, and the records could but give needless pain. All who will live godly — all who are determined to follow the Lord — all who will keep a good conscience — all who, with firm purpose of heart, will act on the authority of Holy Scripture, must make up their minds to endure trial and persecution. Our Lord Christ has told us that He came not to send peace but a sword. ‘Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division. For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three.’ And again He tells us that A man’s foes shall be they of his own household.’
All this was fully realized in those times to which I am now referring; and not only was there this domestic opposition and persecution, but public prejudice in various shapes and forms, entailing much trial, sorrow, and loss.
Still the work went on. The brethren gave themselves devotedly and energetically to the blessed work of evangelization and teaching. Books and tracts were written and circulated. The gospel was preached with a clearness, fulness, depth and power, unknown since the apostolic times. The grand doctrines of the Church as the Body of Christ; the unity of the Body; the presence and action of the Holy Ghost, in the individual believer and in the assembly; together with the blessed hope of the coming of Christ, first for His people, and then with them — all these glorious truths which had been almost wholly lost sight of for eighteen centuries, were brought out with great power, unction, and freshness, to the joy and blessing of hundreds of precious souls.
Moreover, the important distinction between preaching the gospel to the unconverted and teaching the Lord’s people — so little understood or acted upon even now — began to be forcibly illustrated, and with the most blessed results. The evangelist and the teacher waited, each upon his own proper work — souls were converted, and believers were built up on their most holy faith. Worship, too, and the ‘communion of saints’, began to be understood. The Lord’s people met, on the first Day of the week, to break bread, and found the presence of Jesus to be a divine reality in their midst. Of course, none were admitted to the table save such as were believed to be true Christians, sound in faith, and godly in walk.
All this, dearest A., attracted much attention. Many wondered whereunto it would grow. Some prophesied that it would all soon come to nothing. It was but a bubble on the stream of time, which would speedily burst. It was deemed utterly impossible that a number of people, without any ecclesiastical framework, any palpable organization, any clerical order, any visible head, any confession of faith, could ever get on together. How, it was asked, can your meeting go on? Who is to preside? Who is to keep order? You will have people popping up in all directions to speak, or pray, or give out hymns. It must prove a perfect Babel.
Such were the dark suggestions of many unfriendly and unbelieving prognosticators; but they did not prove true. People who attended the meetings were mightily struck by the fact of scores or hundreds of people assembled, without priest, parson or president, and yet no disorder, no confusion, no jar, no hitch. The Lord Himself was there. He was allowed His proper place as President, and He took it and filled it to the joy, comfort, blessing and edification of His beloved people, who preferred Him to any human device.
I need hardly say, dear friend, that here and there, mistakes were made. The weakness and folly of mere nature occasionally displayed themselves in the meetings. Just as, in the life of the individual Christian, notwithstanding the indwelling of the Holy Ghost, there are mistakes, evil, failure and infirmity, so in the assemblies of brethren, as we can easily understand, there would be the exhibition of that which was not of the Spirit although in the main, the Spirit’s presence and rule were owned and felt. The enemy, we may be sure, would take special pains to introduce confusion into the assembly, in order to bring discredit on the ground which the assembly occupied.
Still, I can say, on looking back over an experience of 35 years, the order and power of the meetings were wonderful; while as to the mistakes and failures, I found a thousand-fold worse in the organizations around, and that too, not mourned over as failure but viewed as the legitimate fruit of human arrangement. The brethren had not human order or arrangement, yet the solemnity and order of their meetings were most striking. Many of those who attended their meetings as spectators, could not be persuaded but that there was after all, some pre-arrangement, some recognized order; but I can solemnly declare to you, my friend, there was no such thing. We never could tell, when we entered the meeting, what its order, tone or character was to be. I speak only of the meetings of the assembly for worship and communion. As to those meetings which were convened on individual responsibility, for preaching or teaching, the case was wholly different. The order of such meetings was always pretty much the same. It was entirely a matter of individual responsibility
But I must draw this letter to a close. If the Lord will, I shall continue the subject in my next. I have given you but a very hasty and meagre sketch of an intensely interesting movement in the church of God. I have referred to the rise of those called “brethren”. In my next I shall speak of their further history and its lessons. “
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I believe that the Lord is doing a similar work in our day and we would do well to take encouragement and instruction from those who have gone before.
For further consideration along this line, may I also commend to you the two resources mentioned at the beginning of this post on the Headship of Christ, along with the additional ones listed below!
All blessings in Him,