Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Great House

19 Yet the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, The Lord knows those that are his; and, Let every one who names the name of the Lord withdraw from iniquity. 20 But in a great house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also wooden and earthen; and some to honour, and some to dishonour. 21 If therefore one shall have purified himself from these, in separating himself from them , he shall be a vessel to honour, sanctified, serviceable to the Master, prepared for every good work. 22 But youthful lusts flee, and pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace, with those that call upon the Lord out of a pure heart.(2 Timothy 2:19--22, Darby)

These verses are almost the Constitution of "exclusive brethren". I've examined these verses for years, and think there are some comments that really need to be made. To this end, I'd like to comment briefly on them. This is not meant as an exposition, or an examination of these verses. This is just a few thoughts I've mulled over for the last few years.

It's clear that 2 Timothy is a book about "last days". Consider 2 Timothy 3:1 "But this know, that in the last days difficult times shall be there;" (Darby). It's a book to prepare Timothy (but us too) for the "last days", days which will be difficult, and dangerous. We know from John's epistles that the last days are already here: we don't need to look around and see whether the description fits: we know when we are because we have the record of Scripture to it.

But in the last days, the difficult times, things have changed. We're no longer in the heady, exciting times of Acts 2. We're no longer seeing miraculous growth, or incredible signs. We're now living in the days of Jude, where "certain men have got in unnoticed, they who of old were marked out beforehand to this sentence, ungodly persons , turning the grace of our God into dissoluteness, and denying our only Master and Lord Jesus Christ." (Jude 4, Darby). We live in the days where the Church has fallen into corruption; where we have seen prophecy acted out: the seed has grown into a great tree, and all the birds of Heaven have nested in it. The tares have been sown, and we are waiting for the harvest to have them separated from the wheat.

But we've not been left orphans. While the days are certainly difficult, the Lord knew and foretold them. We're seeing nothing He wasn't prepared for.

v. 19 The Lord knows who are His. This is the first, and arguably most important, part of "the seal". This forms the foundation for everything else: we are not left here to duke it out alone. The Lord knows those who are His. This becomes very important in the last days, as they are characterized by fragmentation. In Acts 2, it was plain to everyone who was the Lord's: the external fellowship was identical to the One Body. But now we have two problems: first, the external fellowship is a mingled company: "certain men have got in unnoticed" (Jude 4). There are false professors in the institutional church. Second, there are true believers scattered and isolated from the external fellowship. It was never God's intention to have a visible Church which was distinct from the One Body, but that's the state of things in the Last Days.

But our security and our hope lies in this: the Lord knows who are His. He hasn't forgotten one of us. Not a single believer is out there that the Lord has lost sight of. Conversely, not a single false professor has fooled Him. We believers really can't tell who's a false professor and who's a true believer. We are not in a position to make that call: we can watch someone and speak to them, and try to make a determination; but in the end, we can be fooled: God cannot.

There is a certain foolishness to our trying too hard to determine "Who's in" and "Who's out".

v. 19 Let every one who names the name of the Lord withdraw from iniquity. There is a second part of the seal: a personal responsbility to "withdraw from iniquity". This is not a responsibility that we lay on one another: it's a responsibility we bring one ourselves when we "[name] the name of the Lord".

There is certainly a sense where we can look at someone who "names the name of the Lord" and say "have you withdrawn from iniquity?". But it's much more pertinent that we look at ourselves and say "have I withdrawn from iniquity?"

"Exclusives" have gotten a wrong focus on this, I think. We've made the term "withdraw from iniquity" into a very narrow sort of instruction. We take that to mean that someone needs to "separate" from anything we disapprove of, if they want any part with us. That's not entirely unfounded: there is certainly a sense where we can become partakers of another person's sins. Associations can have a huge affect on us.

But there's a much greater sense where we need to call a spade a spade (so to speak) and judge iniquity within ourselves. It's very convenient to use a verse like this to condemn everything we don't like "out there", but there's a huge class of iniquities "in here": pride, arrogance, dishonesty, lust. These are very real sins and iniquities that live in our own hearts. And as much as we like a verse like this to condemn iniquity in others, it's primarily a verse to us who claim to be "gathering to the Lord's name": Have we withdrawn from iniquity?

"Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy" (Luke 12:1). "But do not after their works, for they say and do not, 4 but bind burdens heavy and hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of men, but will not move them with their finger." (Matthew 23:3 & 4). We ought to pay close attention to these words of the Lord; partly because in our "assembly circles", there is a tendency to Pharisaism. One such tendency is to demand others to "depart from iniquity", while not judging ourselves. Or to put it another way, we redefine "iniquity" to describe only the things we are sure others do, but we don't. I have frequently said "When we do it, it's weakness; when they do it, it's sin". This is hypocrisy.

v. 20 But in a great house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also wooden and earthen; and some to honour, and some to dishonour. There has been a lot written about this: the House of God has become a "great house". The characterization of a "great house" is, a mixture of vessels: honourable and dishonourable in the same house. Much has been written about what was once the "house of God" now being a "great house", but I think the essential idea is this: where there was once a sort of purity, a singleness of heart and desire in the Church, there is now a tremendous range. Believers and unbelievers alike are in the house of God.

Let me pause a moment and clarify that last point. "Brethren" have developed an interesting theology in the last 100 years or so, where they are now "the house of God", and everyone else is the "great house". I see no basis for this idea in Scripture. I see nothing in Scripture to indicate that a group of believers (no matter how godly) can separate from the corruption in the church and thus return to a pristine state. It's just not there. There is a sense of departing from iniquity (as v. 19 says), but there is no sense in which we can do God's house-cleaning for Him. Yes, there is the need for us to separate from evil where we know of it: there is the need to "withdraw from iniquity", which may require a separation from others in the house of God. But there is nothing in Scripture to justify the idea that we can thus cease to be the "great house" and once again be the "house of God" in simplicity. If we accept that the "great house" describes the church (and it does), then we must accept that the house of God has become a "great house". We can't fix that, not even in a tiny way by gathering only with a few others.

But to return to the point of the verse: the house of God is now a great house. We now have both vessels to honour and some to dishonour.

v. 21 If therefore one shall have purified himself from these, in separating himself from them , he shall be a vessel to honour, sanctified, serviceable to the Master, prepared for every good work. Darby's translation inserts the phrase "in separating himself from them", so it should really read: "If therefore one shall have purified himself from these, he shall be a vessel to honour, sanctified, serviceable to the Master, prepared for every good work." The translator's notes in the Darby Translation clarify this addition: it's not entirely unfounded, but the additional phrase is actually an insertion, and needs to be recognized as such.

Here again is the call to separation. Earlier, there was separation from iniquity (v. 19), now there is a separation from "vessels of dishonour". Notice this is a sort of parallel of 1 Corinthians 5, "But now I have written to you, if any one called brother be fornicator, or avaricious, or idolater, or abusive, or a drunkard, or rapacious, not to mix with him ; with such a one not even to eat" (1 Corinthians 5:11, Darby Translation). But there are some differences: in 1 Corinthians, there was to be separation from one who is "called a brother" who is in sin. It presupposes he is actually a Christian, or at least the separation is due to his professing to be so. But here in 1 Timothy, no such assumption is made. The "vessel of dishonour" might indeed be a brother, or perhaps not, perhaps he is a false professor, or perhaps not a professor at all; but he is in the great house, and should be separated from.

Again, 1 Corithians declares we are not to separate from sinners in the world. Worldlings live as they wish, it is their world, and we are not called to separate from them per se. But there is a separation from one in the house who is a vessel to dishonour.

The other difference to notice is this: in 1 Corinthians, the evildoer is expelled from the assembly; in 2 Timothy, the separation is individual. I have no question that any church, no matter how corrupt, is called to act according to 1 Corinthians and expel the unrepentant. But we are in the last days: that is simply not being done. Is the individual then to continue in that church, and just accept the assembly decision? 2 Timothy introduces to right of the individual to act in separation.

Is this a formal separation? I don't know. I hate to admit it, but I honestly don't know.

In the case where a church refuses to judge sin and act accordingly, I would say the individual has no choice but to separate from it as a group. That is pretty much formal separation.

But in the case where there is a "mixed multitude" in a church, I don't know how formal the separation is to be. There is to be some, obviously; but I can't tell to what degree that is to be carried.

v. 22 But youthful lusts flee. There is a real danger in "youthful lusts". There is a time to stand and fight, but there is a time to flee.

I suppose the term "youthful lusts" brings to mind sexual sins; but I think the term is broader than that: the things a youth may lust for range from power to money to sexual gratification, and covers all manner of things in between. To limit this to sexual lust is certainly short-sighted.

v. 22 and pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace So it's not all negative, there is a positive command. Not only are we to separate from iniquity (v. 19), lusts (v. 22), and even people (v. 21); we are to pursue these four things: righteousness, faith, love, and peace.

There is a sense where the flesh can tolerate separating from people or things, because that makes it feel important: religious flesh loves to condemn others and elevate self. Separation from evil is frequently nothing more than arrogance, or propping up of one's own flesh. But pursuit of righteousness, faith, love, and peace is a humbling thing. Arrogance is no help: pointing fingers at others who don't make the cut is no help. It requires humility.

v. 22 with those that call upon the Lord out of a pure heart. Sadly, this phrase has been mis-used over the years. "Brethren" have used it as an excuse to exclude others. Is it an exclusive statement? Well, there is an element of the exclusive in there: it doesn't say you should pursue with whomever we like: it specifically describes those with whom we should pursue. We are to pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace with those that call upon the Lord out of a pure heart.

So we're not called to walk alone.

We're not called to walk with the people we like, nor even the people we approve of. We're called to walk with those that call upon the Lord out of a pure heart. I have come to the honest opinion, after mulling this over for years, that "brethren" have utterly failed in obeying this command. To the extent that we knowingly refuse to fellowship with anyone who call[s] upon the Lord out of a pure heart, we have turned our back on this injunction.

I once sat in a Bible Reading where a "leading brother" explained that "A pure heart is an undivided heart", so anyone who tries to fellowship with both our assembly and someone else doesn't have a pure heart... Religious flesh loves to pervert the word of God for its own benefit. It's abundantly clear that "A pure heart is an undivided heart" is sophistry at best, dishonesty at worst. It's equivocation, using the English term "pure" to mean "unmingled". The problem is, the Greek word translated here doesn't mean "unmingled", it's a moral word. It means "clean".

If "pure" were to be translated "undivided", then we would have a contradiction. On the one hand, the test of fellowship would be whether someone is willing to fellowship in only one place. On the other hand, it is therefore impossible to fellowship with all those who fellowship exclusively elsewhere. Let me elucidate: if "pure heart" really means "undivided heart", then the Roman Catholic who refuses to fellowship with anyone not Roman Catholic certainly has a pure heart. But then by definition, it is impossible for me to fellowship with him or her, as I am not Roman Catholic!

Further, if a "pure heart" is an "undivided heart", then we have to conclude that the true test of fellowship is loyalty, not moral purity or integrity. While that is fine if you want to form a cult, it's hardly in keeping with the teaching of the New Testament. Especially since this passage itself declares we are to withdraw from iniquity.

The only reasonable explanation is, the "pure heart" is the "clean heart". It's describing those who call on the name of the Lord in sincerity, not looking for a license for sin, not looking for our own glory; but calling on the name of the Lord out of the need that comes of being His child in "difficult days".

We're to walk with the children of God who are walking uprightly, calling on the Lord's name.


Steve Oberg said...


Just wanted to comment on your blog (rather belatedly) to let you know that I am reading it. (I know myself how encouraging it can be to have someone make a comment. It's way more affirmative than cold log stats.)

I grew up in the exclusive brethren, in the portion that you might know as the Renton Brethren. Honestly, I know very little about the Kelly/Grant branch although its existence was of course known to me.

Your open and honest discussions of brethren matters, including areas of disagreement, is refreshing. I am no longer part of the brethren, having left it about nine years ago for several reasons (including what I saw as exclusiveness as being in opposition to an evangelical outlook, among others).

Please keep writing.


clumsy ox said...


Thanks for the kind words. I guess people really do read this blog.

I suppose the challenge is to preserve the truths "brethren" hold and teach, without imitating their faults. I find that a difficult or impossible path to walk. I'm sure that's something you've experienced too.

Please feel free to chime in where you have something to say.