The Thrill of a United and Harmonious Assembly
Tom Wilson, Glasgow, Scotland [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
Aspirations after unity
Who would not yearn to be in a united and harmonious assembly, where the presence of the Lord is known and preserving that unity? What joy! What blessing! It was in a context not altogether unrelated to the subject matter of this article that caused David to exclaim in praise, ‘Happy is that people that is in such a case: yea, happy is that people, whose God is the Lord’.1 Picturing a nation at peace with itself, David acknowledged in that psalm that it would bring a string of benefits to:
- The nation’s young. Both sons and daughters would develop healthily;
- The nation’s reserves. Their garners would fill to capacity;
- The nation’s prosperity. Sheep and cattle would bring forth in abundance.
But more! The harmony within would be a bulwark against invasion from without. Our Authorised Version translates the poet’s phraseology beautifully, if somewhat obscurely, ‘no breaking in, nor going out . . . no complaining in our streets’. David considers that peace within would be accompanied by assurances that there would be no breaching of that city wall behind which so often fearful citizens had cowered during more than one siege. In the language of the AV, there would be ‘no breaking in’. Nor would there be a miserable convoy of bedraggled demoralized captives bound for exile and slavery, i.e. there would be ‘no going out’. And, says David, there would be neither the cry of a conquering enemy nor the wailing of the defeated; there would be no distress in the city’s streets.2 One day Jerusalem will be what David longed for it to be yet never saw. Isaiah also longed for that day when, ‘my people shall dwell3 in a peaceable habitation and in sure dwellings and in quiet resting places’,4 even ‘Jerusalem shall be inhabited as towns without walls for the multitude of men and cattle therein’.5 She will be ‘at rest’, dwelling confidently, ‘dwelling without walls and having neither bars nor gates’.6
With the coming of the Prince of Peace the yearnings of many an earnest David will be answered. There will truly be peace, not like the ‘assured peace’ the false prophets offered Jerusalem in Jeremiah’s day; there was no substance to the claims they made.7 Jeremiah dismisses their pronouncements, ‘Peace, peace, when there is no peace’. Therein lies a word of caution that we should observe in our day. By ensuring that the conscience is never probed and spiritual unease is not produced, it is all too easy to develop a shallow, indeed spurious, veneer that we might assume to be peace. That falsehood Jeremiah encountered and decried as being ‘no peace’. Nor was David pretending that such a condition is peace. True blessedness is not built on that kind of uneasy pretence.
Causes of disunity – false brethren
David notes in that psalm one other prerequisite to true peace. He needed to be rid of what he called ‘strange children’.8 He was not referring to Israelites against whom he had some accusation but to foreigners (literally, ‘sons of a stranger’). He is thinking of those like the Philistines who lived within the borders of Israel, enjoyed the benefits of that ordered society but who, unlike men like Obed-edom9 and Ittai,10 were not ‘lovers of David’ and his people. By feigned obedience they cloaked their deceitful deeds and seditious words, but there was a danger from their ‘right hand of falsehood’ and their ‘mouth of vanity’. Such undercurrents can pull an assembly down. Not always do we sense that kind of danger.
Causes of disunity – the bitter tongue
We may live in a day unlike the day David envisaged, but we should sense the joy that can be wherever there is harmony among God’s people, wherever there is unity. Usually the problem is not ‘strange children’. Perhaps the most destructive force against Spirit-begotten harmony is the bitter tongue. And it may not be in the mouth of one who is ‘a stranger to grace and to God’. Solomon well knew the danger of ‘a lying tongue . . . a heart that deviseth wicked imaginations . . . and the one who soweth discord among brethren’.11 Sowing discord among brethren is the enemy’s business and so none should be surprised that the son of perdition should criticize the godly Mary.12 But even tongues that bless God sometimes take up the enemy’s business and criticize their brethren in an uncontrolled, unacceptable way, resulting in the whole assembly being disturbed by their hasty words, and those verbally abused left distraught by their deliberately callous words. In the assembly of God, none of us has the right to give any one ‘a piece of our mind’. Before we speak, we first should ensure that we bring them God’s mind, based firmly on Scripture and graced with love. It was a tongue, Miriam’s tongue, assisted by Aaron’s tongue, that caused the Lord to:
- Remonstrate with Moses’ critics;
- Remove the cloud of His presence from the tabernacle;
- Reinforce the gravity of His words by banishing leprous Miriam from the camp; and
- Retard the progress of the people until Miriam was recovered after she and Aaron repented.13
The ill-considered words of one woman and one man cost Israel a great deal. There was no movement forward until God had completed His governmental dealings with them.
Unity in the New Testament
The New Testament is no less demanding of unity among the people of God. It may not quote David’s memorable words, ‘Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity’14, but the doctrine unfolded in the New Testament declares a unity that has to be kept; its exhortations are to those who make peace.
The unity to be kept
The New Testament announces that God has wrought what the human idealist could never imagine: a unity that is not manmade, any more than it is of man’s devising. What He requires us to keep ‘is not the unity of our spirits but the unity of the Spirit’.15 As a result in Ephesians 4. 3, the apostle Paul exhorts that we show all earnestness ‘to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’; and that we do so in the most practical of ways. Where there is lowliness and meekness, longsuffering and forbearance, where love is active, there will be hearts prepared to take forward this most demanding of exercises. The practical expressions of that unity of the Spirit were seen markedly in the Philippians. They were to ‘stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel’.16 Not only could Paul expect ‘as many as are perfect to be thus minded’, he was also confident that, if in anything, any were ‘otherwise minded’; God would reveal even this to them.17 Clearly the unity of the Spirit was being maintained there, not through uneasy compromise but by willing commitment to the revealed will of God. In the Philippians, Paul had found that endeavour to keep the unity of the Spirit, a unity that Paul describes in the sevenfold unity described in Ephesians 4. 4-6, ‘one body . . . one Spirit . . . one hope . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all’. God Himself is the architect of this unity. We are not asked to make it but to keep it.
The uniting bond of peace
We are to keep that unity of the Spirit in the uniting bond of peace. God’s great work of reconciliation slew enmity and created ‘in (Christ) himself of twain one new man’, and so made peace.18 The work of reconciliation by the cross is clearly both positive and negative: it destroys and creates: it breaks down and also abolishes, Eph. 2. 14-15. It meant that that most divisive of distinctions, that between Jew and Gentile, was abolished with every other distinction in which the flesh would glory. It has created something for the heart of God. God has made peace and so the saints can acknowledge that they are ‘one body’ and give practical expression to their understanding of the effects of the uniting bond of peace. This peace is of course not our peace with God but that which established the basis ‘for enjoying and furthering practical union among saints of God’. God has removed all barriers between us so that fleshly distinctions should not cause disharmony. We must be careful not to erect once more those very barriers.
The making of peace
It is James’ epistle that speaks of ‘them that make peace’.19 He is not suggesting that any add to the work that ‘made peace by the blood of the cross’.20 He is suggesting that there are times when every effort has to be made to sow peace and not discord. In the context of James 3. 1 the caution is raised against becoming teachers because of the responsibility brought by assaying to exercise that gift. Indeed John felt this responsibility as an apostle to ensure that he did not become ashamed before Christ at His coming.21 No less responsible is the teacher; he must be ‘a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth’.22 It is therefore essential that the teacher be:
- a perfect man, Jas 3. 2-12;
- a wise man, Jas 3. 13-18.
The perfect man will control his tongue that his word should not offend; the wise man will control his behaviour that his works cause no confusion among them that make peace.
It is in respect of the wise man that we find the benefits are ‘for them that make peace’.23 In contradistinction to such a work of peace, Chapter 4 begins with James’ condemnation of ‘wars and fightings’. These wars and fightings are not of, or for, ‘them that make peace’ but sadly ‘among you’, v. 1. Some reel from accusing saints of such bellicosity. But clearly James is writing about the saints; it is among such professing Christians that the teacher will have to teach.
We do acknowledge that what James describes here is far from acceptable in a Christian situation. Some might dare to question why the apostle writes in such terms. Yet we must admit that there are times when the Lord’s people have descended to such depths. The Galatians were found to be biting and devouring no less savagely than these were warring. We must ask how saints get into such a condition. In Galatia the false teachers no doubt hindered those who had run well lest they should obey the truth.24 Could the fault among those to whom James wrote also lie with the teachers of James Chapter 3. These were men that used and abused their calling and who set on fire passions after what is temporal and carnal?
In response to all God has done, let us keep the unity of the Spirit. Let us value the uniting bond of peace and let us sow peace, that we might say, ‘Happy is that people, that is in such a case: yea, happy is that people, whose God is the Lord’.
1 Ps. 144. 15.
2 Ps. 144. 12-14.
3 Or, ‘settle down’.
4 Isa. 32. 18.
5 Zech. 2. 4.
6 The words of Ezekiel 38. 11, which deals with the pre-millennial invasion of Gog and Magog,
7 Jer. 14. 13.
8 Ps. 144. 7-8, 11.
9 2 Sam. 6. 10 ff.
10 2 Sam. 15. 18 ff.
11 Prov. 6. 17-19.
12 John 12. 3-6.
13 Num. 12.
14 Ps. 133. 1.
15 William Kelly, Lectures on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Ephesians.
16 Phil. 1. 27.
17 Phil. 3. 15.
18 Eph. 2. 15-16.
19 Jas. 3. 18.
20 Col. 1. 20.
21 1 John 2. 28.
22 2 Tim. 2. 15.
23 Newberry margin; JND; RV. The AV reads ‘of’.
24 Gal. 5. 7.
AUTHOR PROFILE: Tom Wilson is an elder in the Springburn assembly in Glasgow and ministers the word throughout Scotland. He was for many years an editor of Believer’s Magazine and is principal of a specialist college in Glasgow.