Assemblies should not grow because of sheep-stealing, a practice hated by the Good, Great, and Chief Shepherd! (John 10:10). If God is in a work, we should not need to cart God’s dear people from an existing assembly to bolster the numbers of a new, perhaps weak, assembly. Even worse, Paul warned the Ephesian elders of the latent danger of men from among themselves who would try to “draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:30). Sheep-stealing is a common tactic used by those who traffic in spiritual things by means of popularity contests. God places believers in particular assemblies; they should remain there unless they are convinced that the Spirit is leading them elsewhere. The norm is to blossom where God planted us! (Why did Joseph call his second son Ephraim?) When Paul encouraged Timothy in his work for God, he did so in fellowship with Timothy’s overseers (1 Tim 4:14) and with a pure heart, a good conscience, and unfeigned faith (1 Tim 1:5). Paul had no ulterior motive when he encouraged some as to their movements among assemblies (2 Tim 4).
The establishment of the assembly in Antioch, Acts 11, furnishes us with an example similar to Acts 8. Believers from Jerusalem, scattered by persecution, arrived there, preached the gospel, and saw a work begun. The Jerusalem church responded effectively and sent one of their own in whom they had confidence. Barnabas in turn, seeing the grace of God, went to Tarsus and hand-picked Saul to help him consolidate this work. The happy result was the establishment of an assembly that would become the focus of missionary endeavors for most of the rest of the time covered in the book of the Acts, fully supported by the assembly in Jerusalem. In both chapters, then, we see the Jerusalem assembly acting promptly and effectively in sending qualified, spiritual men to evaluate a new situation and ensure fellowship so that there would be no disruption or obstacle that might hinder the work of God.
In the assembly where I meet, ten years ago we saw twenty believers leave us as it was time to begin an assembly in the adjoining town where many of our number lived. In a sense, it hurt to see so many go at once. It happened again recently, as six joined with fifteen others in the formation of a local church in the town where they live. The loss is always felt keenly in the old assembly, especially if there are gifted saints among those who leave. But, “ill that God blesses is our good.” Jack Saword, then in El Salvador, said years ago: “We don’t put the extra benches away, but with renewed vigor we work to see those empty places filled again!”
A pyramid illustrates the commencement of a work that culminates in the planting of an assembly. A strong broad base is laid with gospel preaching. 1 Corinthians 3 shows that Paul was conscious of the need of a proper foundation for an assembly. Souls are saved, lives transformed, people identify themselves with Christ in baptism. Step by step, up the pyramid, doctrine is taught, precepts and practices are put into place. Believers begin to gather for more gospel, prayer, and ministry, until it becomes evident that Christ is their Lord, personally and collectively. I believe that then, only then, is the time to carry out the Lord’s supper. That is when the pinnacle of the pyramid is reached!
It is probably at the first supper when two events, one visible, the other invisible, happen simultaneously: (1) The company of believers publicly and collectively owns the Lordship of Christ, expressing it in the Breaking of Bread. This is the only meeting where all five symbols are evident: baptisms that took place previously, covered heads of sisters, uncovered heads of brethren, bread, and cup. This is often the only meeting where there is a clear demarcation of the assembly’s “within” and “without” (1 Cor 5:12, 13). (2) God takes possession and lights the lampstand, forming that company of saints into a spiritual, body-like, autonomous entity called “the church of God,” where the Lord Jesus takes up invisible, yet permanent, residence (Matt 18:20) until the rapture (1 Cor 11:26).
In the meantime, this new assembly will seek to foster, enjoy, and strengthen Scriptural fellowship with other assemblies. It is to the Lord and to Him alone that local churches answer today and will answer in a coming day. Spiritual men with moral weight among the saints, common hymn books, address books, wholesome magazines, and conferences can be used of God to help bind a work, but they should never be used by self-serving, carnal men to control a work.
Assemblies have no governing board or earthly head. “Mother assemblies” have no jurisdiction over other assemblies. Every believer, preacher, missionary, overseer, and deacon alike, should be subject to local oversight – not the other way around! The sooner we eradicate politics from inner and inter-assembly affairs, will God be pleased to work among us as He did in the days of “the most excellent Theophilus”!
The Lord of the churches still walks among His lampstands and searches the reins and hearts of His people (Rev 2:1, 23).