O Lord, righteousness belongeth unto thee, but unto us confusion of face, as at this day; to the men of Judah, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and unto all Israel, that are near, and that are far off, through all the countries whither thou hast driven them, because of their trespass that they have trespassed against thee. O Lord, to us belongeth confusion of face, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because we have sinned against thee. To the Lord our God belong mercies and forgiveness; for we have rebelled against him; neither have we obeyed the voice of Jehovah our God, to walk in his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets. (Daniel 9: 7--10, ASV)
I've repeatedly made the claim that the Church is apostate. What I mean by that is, the Church as a whole has left what the Scripture teaches, and has gone off on her own. I am convinced the Scripture foretold this: Christ and the Apostles predicted general falling-away, "when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:8, ASV) I am further convinced that the Epistles build on this theme, so there is a general downward trend in them.
This is what "brethren" mean when they talk about the "ruin of the Church". You see, I am still dispensationalist.
But over the last couple years, I've begun to question the "brethren" response to the ruin they saw. I think it's fair to say they've generally responded to apostasy (real or perceived) by trying to separate from it in a corporate sense; and I am not at all sure (anymore) that is the Biblical course of action.
I start in Daniel 9, because Daniel 9 is to me the ultimate apostasy chapter. It's the prayer of Daniel when he looks into the prophets (specifically into Jeremiah), sees the Lord predicted a 70 year captivity, and realizes it's been 70 years since Jerusalem was taken. Daniel realizes the the Babylonian Captivity is coming to a close, and he responds by covering himself in sackcloth and ashes and praying what is probably the longest prayer of repentance in the Scripture.
Daniel 9 is well worth examining, but I want to point out what is to me the most outstanding feature: Daniel was personally guilty of none of the things he confessed. Daniel himself had not committed the idolatries and immoralities he confessed; he had been only a boy when taken from Jerusalem by the Babylonians, and had an impeccable track record when in Babylon. Further, he was decidedly separated from the rest of Israel while in Babylon. But despite his personal blamelessness in the sins he confesses, he insists on saying "we".
I find this striking, because my experience in "brethren" has been precisely that they see themselves as somehow blameless in the current state of things, because they "walk in separation". But Daniel---one of only a couple men of whom the Scripture records not one sin---falls to his knees and says "we".
This is the great failure of "brethren" in my mind: that having seen the deplorable state of the Church, they have refused to humble themselves and confess it as "we". They've been quick to separate from sin they see, even if it means separating from other Christians; one would think that might mean they understand the seriousness of sin. But they have refused to acknowledge that we are all One Body, what one member does, all feel. Their fine-tuned rules of fellowship and separation have sprung from an admirable sense of wanting to avoid evil: but they have failed to see the big picture; we are in this together.
There are practical concerns, of course---there is a difference between attending a church that has openly apostasized and attending one where the Word of God is still respected. And on the other side of the coin, "brethren" are pretty much guilty of the same things they have "separated" over. I have personally heard reports from various "brethren" assemblies of all the evils we condemn in everyone else. There is, as I have said before, not a lot of point in "leaving the camp" just so we can set up an exact replica of it elsewhere.
But all that aside, I have come to question whether Scripture actually teaches that we can just wash our hands of the Church and the problems therein and set up our own new lump. It seems that we have spent a good deal of the last 200 years arguing that those sins aren't our problem, we've separated from them. But I look at Daniel, and I have to say that wasn't his reaction. Daniel got on his knees and confessed the sins he saw as if he himself had committed them.
I notice also that Daniel makes no effort to distance himself from the group. He doesn't point to his (very real) separation from Israel and argue that he's left the camp. He doesn't decide he's going to henceforth be a new denomination of Israelite. No, he identifies completely with Israel, without any qualification or caveats.
So I have to ask, when we look around and see apostasy, do we confess it as our sin? Or do we attempt to claim innocence on the grounds that we have left the camp? Worse, do we leave and set up our own group, only to do the very same things we claim to have eschewed?
"Brethren" history pretty much declares that is exactly what happened.
When I look in the last seven Epistles (Revelation 2 & 3) I see the same thing. I see that every church in Asia: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Philadelphia, and Laodicea---every church---has an "overcomer". They are in Thyatira and Laodicea just as certainly as they are in Philadelphia. And interestingly, not one word is said to hint that the overcomer in Thyatira or Laodicea should leave and go over to Philadelphia. Not one word. The overcomer is a fixture in each church: the one overcoming in Thyatira keeps overcoming in Thyatira. The one overcoming in Philadelphia keeps overcoming in Philadelphia.
But when I think back over my 20 years with "brethren" I see a repeated message that overcoming means leaving them and coming to join us. This is not Scripture: it is merely arrogance.
I'm more and more becoming convinced that the real purpose of an assembly---any assembly---is a place to worship the Lord. It's where I go to worship and remember Him. In principle, I'm not there because I agree with the doctrinal statement, nor because I like and get along with the people. I'm there because He is there.
And to quote "brethren", if two are three are there, gathered in His name, then He is there too (cf. Matthew 18:20).
So I've started to see that doctrine is not unimportant, but it is far from all-important. There is a very real sense where my personal walk with the Lord ought not to be completely tied into the gathering where I worship. He is there, so I go there to worship Him.
The corollary to that is, that I don't prop up my faith on the group. I walk with Him, and then with them. Yes, there is mutual comfort, love, and encouragement with one another. But the primary relationship is vertical, not horizontal.
I'm starting to see that true Christianity is essentially apostasy-proof. That one who is justified by faith (alone) in Christ (alone) is irrevocably His. The eternal life that the Son shares with us is not some fragile thing that we need to jealously protect. It's bigger than that.
Do we withdraw from iniquity? Of course we do! I am not suggesting we throw it all away in a glorious gesture of Antinomianism. But I am starting to think that the Scripture calls for us to walk with Him first where we are. Like Daniel, we're not free to just take our ball and go home: we need to take our place in His work down here. And that might well mean sitting in a place with a name over the door that makes us a little queasy.
In the 21st Century, we have a problem Timothy didn't have: he was in Ephesus and there was only one Church. I completely agree there were probably many gatherings in Ephesus, but they were all "in fellowship". There was only one church in Ephesus, though it may have met in many different places. But the point is, Timothy didn't have to choose a church.
Today, there is a multitude of places that claim to be a church in the city. Some of them are utterly blasphemous, some are relatively faithful. That means I'm perhaps over-simplifying a little. Since there is actually some choice, perhaps I ought to choose something better, right?
And I think that is probably true. But once I was looking for the perfect assembly: now I am looking to see where the Lord wants me to worship. That's not at all the same thing, and I frankly have no idea what that will look like.