Article from Special Issue Vol. 58, No. 691, July 1988
THE DISTINCTIVE BELIEFS OF THE CHRISTADELPHIANS
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THE ORGANISATION OF THE CHRISTADELPHIAN COMMUNITY
AS FAR AS the spiritual wellbeing of his followers in the first century was concerned, the Lord Jesus foresaw even before his crucifixion that a particular form of organisation would need to be developed for their pastoral, disciplinary and preaching purposes and requirements. On two separate occasions during his ministry he is recorded as speaking of his “church” (Gk. ekklēsia) before it existed: once to Peter, whose confession of belief in him was to form the bedrock of the ‘ecclesial’ association of like-minded believers (Mt. 16:18), and once to all his disciples, in the context of an exhortation about the sympathetic but firm treatment of ‘offences’ between brethren (Mt. 18:15-20).
It was an institution established, and to a large extent directly and openly controlled, by the Spirit-power of God, working through the inspired apostles and manifesting itself in a profusion of miraculous gifts, both within the ecclesial assemblies and in connection with the preaching of the gospel to the pagan world outside (1 Cor. 12).
Admission to the Lord’s ‘assembly of called-out ones’ (the basic meaning of the Greek word ekklēsia) was, according to the clear testimony of Scripture, by baptism into Christ, through total immersion in water. To the Ephesian ecclesia, whose first twelve members Paul himself had baptised (Acts 19:1-7), the apostle later wrote reminding them that they had become “fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19). With this in mind, therefore, he exhorted them to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” on the basis of their common belief and hope—a shared credo which he summarised for them briefly in chapter 4: “… one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (vv. 3,5,6).
“An empty Christian name”;
The picture of the early church which emerges from the New Testament is of a community of believers made up of groups of individuals operating locally as separate entities, or ecclesias, welded together on a wider scale on the basis of a simple set of commonly received truths, referred to by Luke as “those things ... most surely believed among us”;(1:l), and by Jude as “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (v.3). Known first simply as “the disciples” (Acts 6:1,2,7), “the brethren” (Acts 9:30; 11:29), and sometimes also as members of “the way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9; 22:4), public awareness of their existence as a distinctive community of followers of Jesus is signified by Luke’s remark in Acts 11:26 that “the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch”;—probably around the year 43 A.D. and possibly as a term of abuse.
The history of the ‘Christian’ community since the first century, however, is a sad case of falling away from the simple truths believed by those early disciples of Christ—a process grimly predicted many times by the apostles themselves, speaking by Divine authority (Acts 20:29,30; 2 Thess. 2:3; 1 Tim. 4:1-3; 2 Tim. 4:3,4; 1 Jno. 2:18.19; Jude v. 18). The death of the inspired apostles, and of those who shared with them the Spirit-gifts and the Divinely appointed oversight of the household of faith, only served to contribute to this decay, as the third-generation Christians—like the children of Israel before them (Judg. 2:7)—fell into apostasy. As one writer so aptly puts it, “all trace of primitive truth disappeared, and the Spirit of the Lord was withdrawn from all association with an empty Christian name”.(Footnote 2)
The apostolic faith revived
As the era of the latter days, the end of “the times of the Gentiles”, and the time for the return of Christ drew near, it was nevertheless appropriate that God, in His providence, should revive a corporate witness to the truths revealed in His Word and taught by His Son, the Word made flesh.
The ferment of Bible study in the first half of the nineteenth century led to a thoroughgoing, fundamental rediscovery of those truths which Jesus and his earliest disciples believed and taught. Those who shared this understanding found themselves, inevitably, in collision with those who continued to prefer the teachings of the various ‘Christian’ churches and denominations, and thus the Christadelphian community was formed.(Footnote 4) Based on the demonstrable certainty that Christendom is “astray” from the teaching of the Bible, the community was a conscious attempt to revive the teaching of the apostles and to carry on their efforts to make ready a people prepared for the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth.
Following in first-century steps
In the absence of “the co-operation and living guidance of the Holy Spirit as enjoyed in the apostolic age”,(Footnote 5) and with no Scriptural indication to the contrary, it was clearly right that the first Christadelphians should seek to re-establish not only the content, but also, as far as possible in the context of a later age, the forms of early Christianity.(Footnote 6) The term ‘church’ and the name ‘Christian’ having become “objectionable through association with unapostolic ideas and institutions”,(Footnote 7) it made good Scriptural sense to use, in the one case, an anglicised form (‘ecclesia’) of the original Greek word, and thereby to identify the groups of believers in virtually the same way as the New Testament itself,(Footnote 8) and in the other case to coin a new and distinctive term (‘Christadelphians’), signifying ‘the brethren of Christ’, and approximating closely to the New Testament Greek phrase adelphois en Christō (‘brethren in Christ’) used by Paul about believers in Colossians 1:2. Stripped of the accretions of centuries of apostasy and of manmade tradition, the ‘rituals’ of Christianity were reduced once more to the bare, and Biblical, minimum. Along with baptism by total immersion in water as the ‘initiation’ into the ecclesial family,(Footnote 9) only the breaking of bread—the communion service—was found to be an essential corporate rite for the whole membership, the practice of the early believers and the direct command of Jesus in Luke 22:19 (“this do in remembrance of me”;) being taken as binding on all the followers of Christ, in every age.
For the rest, the Christadelphian community has sought to apply in its own communal and ecclesial life not so much the letter as the spirit of its first-century counterpart—the underlying and unchanging spiritual principles, rather than any slavish adherence to forms made inappropriate with the change of circumstances or the passage of time. In his full-length study of the first-century ecclesia, J. B. Norris speaks for Christadelphians generally when he writes: “We prefer to define ‘following in their steps’ as an emulation of their example rather than a copying of their forms”.(Footnote 10) Where appropriate, of course, particular practices are shared in common with the early days of Christianity—such as the refusal to take oaths or to sue for redress in a court of law, and the wearing of a head-covering by the female members when the community is gathered together—the timelessness of such practices being clearly indicated by the commandments of Christ or by unequivocal apostolic instruction (Mt. 5:34; Jas. 5:12; 1 Cor. 6:7; 11:6).
In other cases, first-century practices are not followed because it can be shown or inferred from Scripture that the basis for them was local or temporary. The observance of the ‘love-feast’ is one example, now no longer appropriate in view of the danger of the abuses which were beginning to mar the feast even in the first century (1 Cor. 11; Jude v.12; 2 Pet. 2:12-14). Another is the early practice of having “all things common” (Acts 2:44), of selling goods and possessions and putting the proceeds into a single communal purse for the apostles to administer—a practice developed perhaps from the pattern set by Jesus and his small itinerant band during his earthly ministry (Jno. 12:4-6; 13:29). The growth in the size of the community and the consequent need for a more efficient organisation of the practicalities of ecclesial life was soon felt (Acts 6:1-4), and it is clear that the handling of financial affairs became a responsibility of particular brethren, and that both regular and special collections began to be taken up for the needs of the
Brotherhood and for the relief of the poor (Acts 11:29; 1 Cor. 16:1-3). In this respect at least, Christadelphian ecclesial practice can be said to be more in line with that of the more extensively organised ecclesias of the second half of the first century than with that of the infant community in Jerusalem immediately after the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2.
Whether the forms vary or not, then, the basic Scriptural principles remain the same, perhaps the prime example of this being in the method of appointment of those who minister in Christadelphian ecclesias. For, believing as they do that the Holy Spirit does not now directly appoint and inspire those who serve and guide the ecclesias as it did in New Testament times (Acts 20:28; 2 Tim. 1:6-14), Christadelphians nevertheless seek to apply, in selecting their principal ‘serving brethren’ from among their own number by democratic means, the tests of fitness to serve which are laid down in Scripture by the Holy Spirit itself. And if the New Testament’s Spirit-gifted “bishops” (Gk. episkopos, ‘overseer’), “deacons” (Gk. diakonos, ‘minister’) and “elders” (Gk. presbuteros, ‘aged one’) are necessarily conspicuous by their absence in Christadelphian ecclesial administration, the personal qualifications required of their modern Christadelphian counterparts—whether ‘recording’, ‘arranging’, or ‘speaking’ brethren—are still the same as those laid down, for example, by Paul in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.(Footnote 11)
“Decently and in order”;
One of the major principles underlying all Christadelphian ecclesial organisation and practice is to be found in the Apostle Paul’s injunction to the unruly Corinthian ecclesia: “Let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40). Occurring as it does in the same train of thought as the timeless truth that “God is not the author of confusion (mg. tumult), but of peace” (v. 33), Paul’s authoritative commandment has the character of a universal rule by which the particular problems of the Corinthian ecclesia could be resolved.
“Decently” (Gk. euschēmonōs; literally ‘in a good manner’) is a term which has to do with quality of behaviour, as is clear from Paul’s other uses of the same word, in Romans 13:13 (“Let us walk honestly, as in the day”;) and in 1 Thessalonians 4:12 (“that ye may walk honestly toward them that are without”;). The behaviour of the Corinthians was not generally good when they came together as an ecclesia—especially in respect of their use (or rather, abuse) of the prolific gifts of the Spirit (cf. 1 Cor. 14:26). Their unruly exercise of the gifts was undermining the benefit which they should have been gaining from them as an organised body of believers, and it was also impeding the effectiveness of their corporate witness to the gospel (vv.16,23-26,33). It was this specific problem, which is not experienced in identical fashion by those who do not share their Spirit-gifts, to which Paul’s general exhortation about ‘decency’ was directed.
“In order” (Gk. kata taxin; literally ‘by arrangement’) reinforces this same principle, and is reflected in the apostle’s detailed procedural advice in verses 27-39 concerning the times when it was appropriate for the Corinthians to speak with tongues and when it was best for them to keep silent. Only by such orderly arrangements, known and agreed in advance by all concerned, could the peace of which God is the author prevail in the Corinthian ecclesia, as it did elsewhere (v.33). It is certainly not without significance that the Greek word for “order” used by Paul in this exhortation about procedural arrangements in an early Christian ecclesia is the same as that used in respect of the rotational duties of the Hebrew priests under the Mosaic Law (Lk. 1:8; Heb. 7:11). It was just such “order” which gave the apostle joy when he found it in the ecclesia at Colosse (Col. 2:5).(Footnote 12)
“The pillar and ground of the truth”;
In organising their way of life as a community on such general Scriptural principles as these, Christadelphians have always sought to bear in mind that the twin purposes of their association together as the body of Christ are unchanging: the building up of all the individual members of the body (their preparation for the Kingdom), and the public declaration of the truth of the gospel to the world at large. In this twofold aim the true ecclesia of Christ is what the Apostle Paul calls “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), where “pillar” (Gk. stulos) seems to refer to the supporting strength of the believers themselves, gained and communicated, no doubt, by fellowship together (Gal. 2:9; Rev. 3:12). “Ground” (Gk. hedraiōma; literally ‘basis’ or ‘foundation’) is that which gives stability to the superstructure—in this case “the truth”, which is built upon the very cornerstone of the “house of God”, the Lord Jesus Christ himself (Eph. 2:20). The true “church of the living God”, therefore, is the means by which the eternal and unchanging teachings concerning the work of God in Christ are mediated on a sound and continuing basis to the world; and the personal responsibilities of belonging to such a community are part of “the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” which membership of a Christadelphian ecclesia entails. It is only by a diligent application to the Word of God that those teachings and responsibilities are defined and a Christadelphian learns how “to behave ... in the house of God”.(Footnote 13)
The distinctive features of the Christadelphian body, both in teaching and in practice, will be found, therefore, to regress to one element or another of that essential touchstone: the teaching of the Bible, and the Spirit of Christ which pervades it.
In every aspect of its communal life and faith, the Christadelphian body, in one way or another, stands on the same ground as all its spiritual antecedents in which the truth of God has been found.
The primacy of the written Word of God in all matters of doctrine and practice (in the absence of inspired prophets and teachers);
the laity of all the members (“ ... for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren”;—Mt. 23:8);
the election of serving brethren in the light of apostolic advice as to their fitness for service (1 Tim. 3; Tit. 1);
the mutual submission of minorities to majorities in matters not affecting salvation (“ ... submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God”;—Eph. 5:21);(Footnote 14)
the autonomy(Footnote 15) of individual ecclesias (with some apostolic precedent,(Footnote 16) but especially now in the absence of Spirit-gifted apostles and bishops appointed directly by the Holy Spirit);
the simplicity of ecclesial services (prayer, singing, reading and studying the Word of God, exhorting, preaching the gospel and breaking bread being the basic activities found in the first-century ecclesias);
the adherence to an agreed statement of faith, based entirely upon a common understanding of the teaching of the Bible on all important matters (such ‘creeds’ having been clearly elaborated at an early stage in the first-century ecclesias—Rom. 6:17; 1 Cor. 15:3; 2 Tim. 2:11-13; Jude v.3);
and the maintenance of fellowship exclusively on the basis of a continuing acceptance of the beliefs and practices embodied in the common statement of faith(Footnote 17)
—all these aspects of Christadelphian faith and life mark the community out as both distinctive and Biblical.
The last two, in particular, explain and determine why and in what respects the Christadelphian community is both different and separate from the rest of Christendom. With a creed firmly based on the saving truths found only in the Bible, and with a fellowship tightly circumscribed by a common standard of faith and practice, the members of the Christadelphian body maintain their resistance to the tempting wiles of ecumenism and continue to repudiate the many unfortunate errors of Christianity in general.(Footnote 18) For them, instead, there remains the call to single-minded zeal in the service of the Lord, the upward and often demanding path that alone can lead to everlasting life, and the humbling awareness of their privileged status as part of that “chosen generation”, that “royal priesthood”, that “holy nation”, and that “peculiar (or ‘purchased’) people” of whom the Apostle Peter speaks (1 Pet. 2:9).
1 “(The ecclesia) is not simply a local assembly of people who have decided to form a club with certain objectives, for which they make the rules and determine the conditions for membership. It was the Lord Jesus who first used the term in connection with his disciples, to describe a community founded upon the rock of faith in him as ‘the Christ, the Son of the living God’”. Alfred Nicholls, “Scriptural principles and ecclesial order”. In: Taking heed to the Ecclesia of God (Birmingham, The Christadelphian, 1987), p.2.
2. Robert Roberts, The Truth in the nineteenth century ... A guide to the formation and conduct of ecclesias (Birmingham, 1883), p.4. (The Ecclesial Guide.)
3. “… as to the ‘evolution of the Christadelphian movement’ ... there has been no miraculous illumination. There has been nothing extra-natural about it. But it is none the less of God: first, because the thing to which the study has been directed, is of God: viz., the word of His truth ... and secondly, because the bringing about ... has been the result of circumstances ... providentially regulated”. Robert Roberts, “Ecclesial organisation in the nineteenth century”, The Christadelphian, 1881, pp. 423-4.
4. “Our early brethren did not choose to be a separate group or be isolated from their former associates. It was their distinctive faith and hope which caused them to be excluded ... We have no direct apostolic guidance, no spirit-guided eldership, no official organisation of any kind: and yet we are all bound together by one thing—we have embraced one faith which is quite distinctive”. Nicholls, op. cit., p.1.
5. Roberts, The Truth in the nineteenth century, op. cit., title-page.
6. “We desire to be organized but the Holy Spirit neither calls any of us to office, nor bestows on us any special gifts. If he prescribe to us no organization for modern times, and he have cut us off from access to the ancient one, it is manifest that, if we are to organize at all, we must do as Moses did at Jethro’s suggestion, and organize ourselves, if God command us so; and we infer that he does, as he has not told us how to organize, yet exhorts through the apostle ‘not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is’”. John Thomas, “Man in society”, Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, 1854, p.7.
7. Roberts, The Truth in the nineteenth century, op. cit., p.3.
8. The five main uses of the term ‘ecclesia’ in the New Testament are as follows: 1. the first body of believers in Jerusalem and Judea (Acts 5:11); 2. the bodies of believers afterwards formed in the various cities of the Roman Empire (1 Thess. 1:1); 3. an assembly of part of a body of believers, as distinct from the whole group (3 Jno. v.6); 4. believers (in general) throughout the world (Eph. 1:22,23); 5. a house-meeting (Philem. v.2; Col. 4:15). See J. B. Norris, The First-Century Ecclesia: a study in the earliest Christian organization and development (Birmingham, The Christadelphian, 1951), pp.12,13.
9. “Baptism organizes believers of the gospel of the kingdom into the One Body of the Lord”. Thomas, op. cit., p.5.
10. Norris. op. cit., Preface.
11. “If Paul was careful to recommend that candidates for spiritual appointment in the early ecclesias should have certain eligible qualifications, much more needful is it that regard should be had to these qualifications in appointments in a day like ours, when we are not privileged with the visible indications of the mind of the Spirit”. Roberts, The Truth in the nineteenth century, op. cit., p. 13. This principle is embodied in most Christadelphian ecclesial constitutions by a clause along the following lines: “That in the appointment of serving brethren, we shall have in view, and strive always to follow, the directions given by Paul as to the qualifications that ought to exist”.
12. The Christadelphian way of achieving such Scriptural orderliness in ecclesial affairs is usually by means of a ‘Constitution’—a set of rules drawn up and agreed by each ecclesia to govern its own local procedures, including those concerning the appointment of its serving members. “Walking according to order”, wrote Brother Robert Roberts, “is a duty enjoined by the apostolic commandments. Nothing good can be done without order ... without it, other duties become impossible. Its observance is the very first law of associational co-operation”. “The law of ecclesial operation”, The Christadelphian, 1892, p.152.
13. “The object of ecclesial existence is to keep its members under the power of the truth in its faith and practice ... the development of the fruits of the Spirit in love, comfort, peace and joy in the great truths that bind us together in God”. Robert Roberts, “The management of ecclesial business”, The Christadelphian, 1897, p.508.
14. “If we want to exercise freedom to the full, there will be no way we can gather together as ecclesias. The freedom which we have is in fact bound and restricted. This is done voluntarily, and there are elements of our freedom which we have relinquished ... because we can see it is for the greatest good of the greatest number ... We do not ask, nor should we expect, that decisions will be made purely to please us, with no account taken of anybody else”. Michael Ashton, “That they may do it with joy and not with grief”. In: Taking heed to the Ecclesia of God, op. cit., p. 34.
15. ”... the local ecclesia has its own status in the Father, yet is bound to all those who call upon the same Lord; and what we loosely call ‘ecclesial autonomy’ is in reality the freedom which all his servants have in Christ: the freedom to live as unto him but in a close relationship with all brethren everywhere ‘for whom Christ died’”. Nicholls, op. cit., p.9.
16. See, for example, Norris (op. cit., pp. 23-25) on the present-day implications of the interecclesial ‘conference’ at Jerusalem, recorded in Acts 15.
17. “Fellowship should be the loving companionship of those who believe the same divinely-revealed things in all essential particulars, and follow them in the conduct of their lives”. C. C. Walker, “Brotherhood and fellowship”, The Christadelphian, 1923, p.216.
18. “A loose basis of fellowship ... admits of a larger cooperation with men and a little more of the friendship of this world than is possible with those who accept the strangership-with-God which the truth always brings with it where it is earnestly and fully received”. Robert Roberts, The Christadelphian, 1887, p.470. “Scripture teaches that preservation of unity is to be striven for and the tendency to fragmentation to be deplored. But unity must be upon sound principles. For this reason ecumenism as a means of bringing together fundamentally different groups does not find favour with Christadelphians. In any case, our points of difference often make us unacceptable to others”. Harry Tennant, The Christadelphians: what they believe and preach (Birmingham, The Christadelphian, 1986), p. 245.
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