It has been troubling to me to take note of Christian men who withdraw from fellowship with other saints because of the shortcomings they find in their brothers and sisters in Christ. I would not question whether these souls are truly the Lord’s own, or whether He can still use them in a limited way to advance His purposes in the kingdom of God. But there is loss suffered in the body of Christ and in the soul, when a Christian eschews godly fellowship in the assembly, or avoids real engagement with other believers even while perfunctorily attending a church.
Standing aloof from one’s brethren because they are simply weak and failing brings to mind the prophet Elijah, whom Jehovah sent to the wayward and idolatrous northern kingdom of Israel. Elijah performed great and terrible signs by the power of God, praying for a three-year cessation of rain, calling down fire from heaven on the sacrifice and altar on Mount Carmel, and even calling down fire to consume the emissaries of King Ahab (I Kings 17 – II Kings 1). No doubt all this was of the Lord in His ways of judgment among His people, to the end that their consciences would be smitten and so that repentance might result. However, Elijah was a “man subject to like passions as we are” (James 5:17), and he missed the mind of God in a few important points which I believe might be used to exercise the hearts of some who may feel the way Elijah did.
Many readers will remember that Elijah’s failure of interceding against the people of God is the only failure of an Old Testament saint found recorded in the New Testament (Romans 11:2-5). This is instructive for us beyond the immediate context of God’s election of a remnant by sovereign grace. I believe we could say that there was a serious flaw in Elijah’s otherwise godly character that made his prideful disdain of other Israelites so noteworthy, and the subject of the Lord’s rebuke and censure.
It was this root of self-importance that caused him to flee into the wilderness from Jezebel and there complain: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers” (I Kings 19). One only speaks this way if he had once thought himself to actually be better than his fathers; it was a pitiful admission of his pride. Soon after this, upon reaching Horeb, the mount of God, he manifests it yet again by his speech to Jehovah: “I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken Thy covenant, thrown down Thine altars, and slain Thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left . . .” After Elijah repeats this defense of himself, Jehovah in grace gives the gentle yet pointed rebuke: “Yet I have left Me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which has not kissed him.” We are left to wonder why Elijah failed to seek out these godly ones so as to have some fellowship with them in their isolation, particularly when we notice that the remnant of returned Jews at a later time “spoke often one to another” (Malachi 3:16). This desire for fellowship with the faithful is normal and approved of by the Lord.
The God of Israel had an important mission for Elijah among those tribes that rebelled against the rightful king of the house of David. Following Jeroboam, they had left the divinely-chosen center for worship (Jerusalem) for their own artificial and idolatrous worship at Dan and Bethel. I have often pondered Elijah’s seeming lack of esteem for the place Jehovah had chosen to place His name (Deuteronomy 12), seeing there were other faithful ones from the ten northern tribes that gathered at Jerusalem both before and after the days of Elijah¹, during the reigns of Asa and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. Why this lack and failure? True, he had been led of Jehovah to build an altar of precisely twelve stones on Mount Carmel², indicating his appreciation for Jehovah’s perspective on Israel as being one undivided nation in His thoughts, but why did Elijah not go further in his thoughts and desires, even to Jerusalem, where true worship to the Lord was to be offered? It was during Elijah’s ministry that godly Jehoshaphat gathered the faithful of Judah to the house of the Lord in Jerusalem “to seek the Lord”, and Elijah would have done well to be gathered there with them³.
Elijah’s service was special and singular, and on its principle God was pleased to pattern the ministry of both John the Baptist and a future prophetic witness during the Great Tribulation period.* But he is not a model for the Christian man today, and his lonely and isolated ministry of judgment and restoration presaging an earthly kingdom** is suited to periods outside of this day when “grace reigns” (Romans 5:21). The Lord Jesus indicated as much when He rebuked His disciples when they invoked Elijah’s action° in entertaining the thought of calling fire down from heaven on Samaritans: “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of.”
The believer of this age ought to seek out companionship and fellowship with those “who call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (II Timothy 2:16-22). Truly, there should also be an exercise of conscience as to separation from evil doctrine and immoral practice among Christians. But it is antithetical to the proper spirit of a Christian to neglect this dispensation’s true gathering center for worship, prayer, and administrative authority (i.e., the Lord Jesus Christ – Matthew 18:18-20), or to think so highly of one’s own spiritual state as to separate himself with complaining spirit from simple but godly saints who seek to be gathered around Christ. God in wisdom uses the “spirit of Elijah” to accomplish His purposes of blessing in other days, but the spirit of a Timothy or of an Onesiphorus°° is what He really delights in using for the blessing of saints now, in the church of God.
¹ II Chronicles 15:8-10; 30:5-11 ² I Kings 18:31 ³ II Chronicles 20:3-5 * Revelation 11 ** Malachi 4:5-5; Matthew 16:28 – 17:11 ° Luke 9:54-56; II Kings 1 °° Philippians 2:19-23; II Timothy 1:15-18