Independence, Unity, Centralism: A Comparison

by Michael Hardt

The purpose of this note is not to criticise or even accuse believers of different understanding as to the truth of the assembly. But all Christians are responsible to decide which principles they want to follow. The aim therefore is to look at existing principles (independency, unity, centralism) and to examine "what the scriptures say" (Romans 4:3 and Galatians 4:30).

From the beginning, God's work has been opposed by satan: when God had finished His work of creation "it was very good" (Genesis 1:31) but Satan, soon after, marred it by seducing man to sin (and therefore bringing in the curse). When God had promised that the serpent's head should be crushed by the seed of the woman (Genesis 3:15), Satan concentrated his efforts against "the seed of the woman". * Since the Holy Spirit joined all believers into one body (Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 12:13) Satan has tried to destroy its presentation by introducing division, strife and disunity. The Lord Jesus gave His life in order to "gather together into one the children of God who were scattered abroad" (John 11:52). His opponent will do everything to spoil any visible presentation of this aspect of the Lord's work: the unity of his people.

The two most commonly chosen avenues departure from unity among Christians seem to be those centralism on the one hand and independence on the other.

The following table shows how gatherings of Christians would act, depending on whether they follow the principles of independence, unity, or centralism:

 

Independence

Unity

Centralism

1. Structure

independent units

body

hierarchy

2. Principle

autonomy of "local assembly"

united action

must comply with HQ ('head quarter')

3. Binding

valid in this particular meeting

valid in all meetings

ratification by HQ (?)

4. Case of a meeting tolerates known evil

autonomy implies: other meetings cannot help as this would be 'interference'

Other meetings care. In case of persistence they must finally separate. 

decision by HQ

5. Consequence of point 4.

A "strict" meeting has no possibility to separate from evil! You may find yourself breaking bread in a 3rd meeting with somebody excluded in yours

Separation from evil is possible

depends on decision by HQ

6. Case of mistaken action taken by one meeting

No help

Other meetings (prayerfully)

work towards restoration

Decision by HQ must be accepted

7. Case of a new meeting starting

A new' independent unit, so what?

seeks fellowship with other meetings that are already meeting on the same principle

recognition by HQ required

What does Scripture say?

Scripture sheds light on this different principles in a very unambiguous way.

Paul's doctrine about the one body (1 Corinthians 12:12,13) the Head of which is Christ (Ephesians 1:22.23, Colossians 1:18) is a blow at the very foundation of centralism (based on the idea of a human head or headquarters) as well as at the idea of many independent local bodies (this would make Christ the head of many bodies.) The Body is composed of the whole church (all believers on earth. Eph. 1:22, Col. 1:18) and not a company gathered in one place. The latter idea is based on a misunderstanding of 1 Cor. 12:27 "Ye are Body of Christ" (not the body). If you are English, you bear the character of the English, but you do not make up the whole nation on your own! A company of believers expresses characteristics of the of the body of Christ but does not make up whole body of Christ.

The Lord's words in Matthew 18:18 utterly refute the idea that discipline exercised by a particular meeting should be valid in that particular locality only: "Verily, I  say to you, whatsoever you shall bind on the earth shall be bound in heaven and whatsoever ye shall loose on the earth shall be loose in heaven." The Lord has endowed the "two or three gathered unto His name" (v. 20) with His authority. If we act against their decision this must imply that we do not  recognize this company as gathered unto the Lord's name at all. Believers who are gathered unto the Lord's name are not infallible; but the Lord has given them His authority. (If a meeting act wrongly then, if they are truly gathered unto the Lord's name, He will show them where they were mistaken and the error will be corrected.)

History, interestingly, confirms the practice of unity even before the doctrine of the unity of the church was given.

Acts 8:14-17 shows that Jerusalem was not indifferent towards what happened Samaria. A beautiful path of unity is described in this passage. When the Apostles in Jerusalem heard that the gospel had been received in Samaria, they did not ignore this and leave these newly converted Christians to themselves. Instead, they sent Peter and John to Samaria (v.14).

A similar pattern is followed with regard to Antioch (Acts 11:19-30). The gospel is preached in Antioch. A large number turned to the Lord. And immediately we read: "Then tidings of these things came unto the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem: and they sent forth Barnabas, that he should go as far as Antioch". They did not even hesitate. Further, we read "In these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch" (v.27). Gifts are for the whole body and, therefore, there is no reason for them to be exercised in one place only. Finally, fellowship between Jerusalem and Antioch is expressed when those in Antioch, having heard of the famine, "determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea, which also they did...". Here the (Gentile) believers in Antioch reciprocate spiritual gift received from those (Jewish) believers in Jerusalem by sending relief for their material needs. This passage is illustrates beautifully how different members of the same body act in harmony - and this is not confined to a single locality but is expressed in the way believers in different localities walk together.

Further, Acts 15 shows how believers from different regions endeavoured to take a united position on doctrinal matters (in this case: the false teaching of "salvation conditional on circumcision"). lf local meetings were autonomous there would have been no reason to reach a united conclusion on this matter.

These examples demonstrate the diligence used by the early church to keep the unity of the Spirit "in the uniting bond of peace" (Ephesians 4:3) and how the Lord was honoured in this.

On this bright background, a final question arises: if God's word marks out a path of unity in such a clear way, why is there this inherent tendency of departing either towards independence or towards centralism? There appear to be two main reasons.

The first reason is that keeping the unity of the Spirit requires humility: it can only be, done "with all lowliness, meekness, long-suffering, bearing with one another 'in love" (Ephesians 4:3). lt is simply much more attractive to the flesh to follow the rule of some human headquarters (whose voice may be heard more easily than the Lords, i.e. without having to wait upon the Lord in dependence upon Him), or to declare one's autonomy in order to be free to act as one pleases.

The second reason is linked to the words in 1 Corinthians 12:12 "so also is the Christ": one body, united with the Head in heaven, is called 'the Christ'. If gatherings act in unity, there is a display of this truth. Satan wants to substitute any display of unity by a false representation of "the Christ". Disunity among assemblies results in an awfully distorted representation of the body of Christ. It would rather be a picture of a body in which the members are not properly co-ordinated by its head.

But when, on the other hand, members of the body of Christ act in unity it will be visible that "all the members of the body, being many, are one body" (1 Corinthians 12:12).

Published by Chapter Two, London, 1996 - revised 2002

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