“They that were scattered abroad went everywhere, preaching the word.”—Acts 8:4.
That “the word of the Lord may have free course,” is a matter which few will deny to be of ultimate concern to the glory of God, though it be one which has in many ways been let and hindered by human perverseness: and in nothing more than by confining the preaching of the gospel within arbitrary limits of place and person, prescribed by man, but sanctioned in no way by Scripture. To a single mind which has known the value of God’s love, and which views things in the light in which they are put by that blessed knowledge, it would not seem that, in the midst of a world lying under condemnation, yet visited by this love, aught beyond spiritual qualification was needed for any one to declare, to those whom he sees around him ready to perish, the remedy, namely, that Jesus has died for sinners. Man has been pleased to set up restrictions; but the point with the disciple is to know whether the Lord has done so, and what is the warrant for precluding any from full liberty of preaching to whom He has given His Spirit for the purpose: seeing that, if it has been so given, there is infinite loss in the hindrance, and the Spirit of God is grieved. The same faithfulness to Christ, which will yield unqualified obedience to every jot and every tittle of His commands, will also lead us to search out every hindrance to His service, in order to its removal from ourselves or others. The present question is one of deep importance; for it is evident that, if the restrictions be not verily and indeed ordered by the Lord Himself or by His apostles, it comes to this, that in upholding them, on the one hand, there is a loss of much comfort and edification to the church by confining to the ministry of the one that which should flow from the Spirit in many; and, on the other, the gospel which was “to be preached to every creature “under heaven, is bound and fettered, and multitudes are shut out from the springs of life for want of the invitation which should be upon the lips of all, who themselves have drunk of the living waters.
The point to be proved, by those who were opposed to the unrestricted preaching of the word, is this—either, that none who are not in prescribed office have the Spirit of God in testimony, or that, having it, the sanction of man is necessary for its exercise. I do not purpose here a general investigation of the principles of the subject, but merely to inquire whether any of the church of God are not entitled to preach if the Lord give them opportunity, or whether there be any human sanction needful for their doing so. The following considerations are intended, by the Lord’s help, to maintain that it is not needed; and that no such sanction can be proved to be necessary from Scripture; and that no such sanction was therein afforded. The question is, not whether all Christians are individually qualified, but whether they are disqualified unless they are—what is commonly called—ordained.15 I say commonly, because the word as used in Scripture, does not in the original convey what it does to an English ear at present. I affirm that no such ordination was a qualification to preach in the days of scriptural statement. I do not despise order; I do not despise pastoral care, but love it where it really exists, as that which savours, in its place, of the sweetest of God’s services: seeing that, though it may be exercised sometimes in a manner not to our present taste or thought, a good shepherd will seek the scattered sheep. But I confine myself to a simple question—the assertion that none of the Lord’s people ought to preach without episcopal or other analogous appointment. The thing here maintained in few words is, that they are entitled. The scripture proves that they did so; that they were justified in doing so, God blessing them therein; and that the principles of Scripture require it, assuming, of course, here that they are qualified by God. For the question here is not competency to act, but title to act if competent. Neither do I despise herein (God forbid that I should do so) the holy setting apart, according to godliness, to any office, such as are competent, by those who have authority to do so. But this is entirely another question.
Let us then try the question by the light which the word affords upon the subject. There are only two cases upon which the question can arise—namely, as to speaking in the church, or out of the church: amongst the “congregation of faithful men” for their common profit and building up in the faith; or as evangelists declaring to the world, wheresoever God may direct them, the message of that “grace which has appeared unto all men.” If these are admitted, all anomalous cases will be readily agreed in.
First, then, as to the speaking of Christians in the church. And here I remark that the directions in 1 Corinthians 14 are entirely inconsistent with the necessity of ordination to speak. There is a line drawn there, but it is not between ordained or unordained. “Let your women keep silence in the churches”; a direction which never could have place, were the speaking confined to a definitely ordained person, but takes quite another ground; and which implies directly, not that it is right for every man to speak, but that there is preclusion of none, because of their not being in any stated office. Women were the precluded class; there the line was drawn. If men had not the gift of speaking, of course they would be silent, if they followed the directions there given. The apostle says, “every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation.” Does he then say none ought to speak but one ordained? No. “Let all things be done unto edifying.” That is the grand secret, the grand rule: in a tongue, by two or at the most by three, and by course, and interpret; prophets, let them speak two or three, etc. “For ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted…” “for God …” etc. “Let your women keep silence in the churches; for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience.” We have, then, distinction, not of ordained and unordained, but of those, who from their character—women— are not permitted to speak, and the rest are; being also directed in what order to do so, and the ground of distinction stated. And this is God’s plan of decency and order.
For the rest, they were all to speak, that all might learn, and all be comforted. Not all to speak at once, not all to speak every day, but all as God led them, according to the order there laid down, and as God was pleased to give them ability for the edifying of the church. I apply all this simply and exclusively to the question of Christians in general, having God’s Spirit, using their respective gifts; and I assert that there was no such principle recognised as that they should not, but the contrary.
It may and will be said by many, that these were the times of the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit. But the Spirit of God does not justify breaking through His own order by systematic rules: it would be most mischievous to say that He did. But the case, let it be observed, was not one of the prerogative of spiritual gifts, but of order; for women had spiritual gifts, as we read elsewhere, and directions are given for their exercise; but they were not to use them in the church, because it was out of order—not comely. At the same time there was no hint that any or all the men were not, but the contrary, because it was not out of order. Aptness to teach may be a very important qualification for a bishop, but it cannot be said, from scripture, to be disorderly for any member of the body to speak in the church, if God had given him ability. Besides, though these extraordinary gifts may have ceased, I by no means admit that the ordinary gifts of believers, for the edification of the church, have ceased. On the contrary, I believe they are the instruments, the only real instruments of edification; nor do I see why, on principle, they should not be exercised in the church, or why the church has not a title to the edification derived from them. If the presence of the indwelling Spirit be in the church, it has that which renders it substantially competent to its own edification, and to worship God “in spirit and in truth.” If it be not there, nothing else can be recognised, and it is a church no longer; for no makeshift is warranted by Scripture in default of the original constitutive character and endowments of a dispensation.
But in thus upholding the common title of the saints, it may be supposed by some that the argument will be at once met by referring to the orderly way in which Christ originally gave in His church, “some apostles; and some, prophets; and some, pastors and teachers,” etc. Now, unless one man centres all these offices in one person, by virtue of ordination, the objection will not apply, but on the contrary brings its own refutation. For we read, some had one service, some another—the head, Christ, “from whom the whole body, fitly framed together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.” We read also that the members are set in the body, one the eye, the other the foot, the other the ear, that there “might be no schism in the body.”
And it is a thought which might well commend itself to our minds, that if we have indeed lost many and ornamental members, it is no reason why we should summarily cut off the rest—the word of wisdom or the word of knowledge, and the like, of which there is assuredly some measure yet remaining in the church. But if the attempt should be made to close the enquiry, by silencing all discussion with the startling assertion that it is useless, for the Spirit of God is utterly and altogether gone out of the Church; it at once brings on the question, If so, what are we, and where are we? The church of God without the Spirit? Verily, if He be not there, all union between Christ and His members is cut off, and the promise, “I am with you always, even unto the end of the world,” is of none effect.16 But the word of God shall stand. “The world indeed cannot receive the Spirit of truth, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him,” but let the disciples of Jesus know that He is with them; and that “wheresoever two or three are gathered together in his name,” He is in their midst, His Spirit is with them for instruction and blessing. Is this correct?
Thus far then, as to the first case of speaking in the church. I advocate no system. I mourn over the departure of many of the comely parts or part, however, on which God set comeliness. These passages of the word I take as scriptural evidence that the confining of the edification of the church to nominal office alone has not the Scriptures to rest upon. I speak not here of elders, or their value, or the contrary; observing only that grace and scriptural qualities alone should be our standard of valuation; and that, in the arrangements of the Holy Ghost, it is only the gift of God which gives any title to service in the church, or to its claims; nominal office merely, as such, having no claim upon any one. I speak merely of the one point—the wrongness of a Christian speaking in the church as such. One point, and that a most important one, in this part of the subject remains to be noticed. If we are reminded of the dangers arising from all teaching, it is admitted at once; for it is evident that here, if anywhere, mischief would spring up. But looking to Scripture, we are warned against it, not upon the ground of its being wrong as regards office, not because of its effect merely on others, but warning against it is given, as being one of the things in which, as evil will more or less have a tendency to shew itself, so the remedy is applied to the spirit from whence it flows. “My brethren, be not many teachers, for so shall ye heap to yourselves greater condemnation.” But again, the warning itself shews that there was no such restriction of office as is now supposed, for thus it would have been—you have no business to preach at all, for you are not ordained. But no, the correction was turned to moral profit, not to formal distinction of pre-eminent office.
But the question becomes more important when considered in the second case, namely, as to speaking out of the church, because it forbids the preaching of the gospel by a vast number of persons who may have faithfully borne it to others. Let us inquire into the scriptural facts. In the first place, then, all the Christians preached. “They that were scattered abroad, went every where preaching the word” (Acts 8:4); and those who were scattered were all, except the apostles. Some critics have endeavoured to elude this plain passage, by saying that it is only speaking, which one not in office may do. But a reference to the original at once disproves the assertion. It is “evangelising the word”: and we read elsewhere that “the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord,” Acts 11:19-21. Now, unless all the church were ordained (I think they are, to preach as far as they have ability), here is the simplest case possible, the case in point. The first general preaching of the gospel which the Lord blest beyond the walls of Jerusalem knew no distinction between ordained and unordained. It had not entered into their minds then, that they who knew the glory of Christ were not to speak of it, where and how God enabled them. “And the hand of the Lord was with them.” Paul preached without any other mission than seeing the glory of the Lord and His word—in a synagogue, too—and boasts of it.17 And he gives his reason for Christians preaching elsewhere—” as it is written, I believed, and therefore have I spoken; we also believe, and therefore speak,” 2 Cor. 4. Apollos preached; “he spake and taught diligently the things of the Lord; and of him it is said that, when Paul would have sent him from Ephesus to Corinth, he would not go. Yet, so far from being ordained before beginning to preach, he knew only the baptism of John. And Aquila and Priscilla “took him unto them, and expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly.” And then, continuing his labours as before, “he helped them much which had believed”; and “mightily convinced the Jews, and that publicly, shewing by the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.” Again, at Rome, many of the brethren, waxing bold by Paul’s bonds, preached the word without fear. And here let it be added, for the sake of those who have doubts, respecting the passage, that the Greek word is ‘heralds’; which shews the character of the work. The same habits of wandering preaching we find in the second and third epistles of John guarded, not by ordination, but by doctrine. Nor in truth, is there such a thing mentioned in Scripture, as ordaining to preach the gospel. We have seen that Paul preached before he went out on his work from Antioch. Now if any plead his being set apart there, still the question is not met; for, as before stated, I reason not against such setting apart, if done as there by the Holy Ghost, but against the assertion that Christians, as such, are incompetent to preach. But the case alleged, if it prove anything as to the question at issue, proves that the power of ordaining, as well as of preaching, was not specially connected with office—and nothing more. The only other passage (which, though not commonly quoted, seems to me nearer the purpose) is the apostle’s command, “the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also,” 2 Tim. 2:2. But the thing committed here was the doctrine, and proved tradition, if anything—not ordination, for it does not appear that they were ordained for the purpose.
I have now produced ample evidence from Scripture to a fair mind. My object has been simply to shew the general liberty of Christian men to speak, whether in or out of the church, according to the several gifts which God may bestow upon them, without having need of the seal of human authority; and I say that the contrary assertion is a novelty in Christianity. I have abstained from diffusive discussions upon what has led to it, or the principles which are involved in it. I put the scriptural fact to any one’s conscience; and I call upon any one to produce any scripture, positively, or on principle, forbidding to Christians the liberty of preaching, or requiring episcopal or other analogous ordination for the purpose.
And here I will advert to that which is commonly adduced upon the subject—the case of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. It is remarkable that those who rest upon it should pass by a case immediately preceding, bearing upon this immediate subject; that of Eldad and Medad prophesying in the camp, though they had not come up to the door of the tabernacle, because the Spirit rested upon them. “Would God,” said the meek man of God, “that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them.” That which was here typically proposed, the pouring out of the Spirit upon all, was in principle fulfilled in the Christian dispensation. Then, subsequently, Korah, Dathan, and Abiram acted not under the influence and energy of the Spirit in testifying to the people, but would have assumed authority— the kingship of Moses, and the priesthood of Aaron. This was their fault, which very outrage is committed by those who attempt to defend themselves by urging the case before us: seeing that they are taking to themselves that kingship and priesthood which are Christ’s alone, and setting up themselves as the only legitimate channels of blessing; and usurping His authority again on the other hand by excluding those who have the Spirit of God from exercising that which they have by the authority of God Himself.18 These things here spoken of were typical of our dispensation, as also the apostle states; and the conclusion is, that they make universal preaching desirable, and the assumption of priesthood a sin. To the same purpose is the argument of the apostle applied (Heb. 5), the exclusion from the office of priesthood, save by such call as Christ had; in which, in one sense, all believers are partakers—in another sense, He is alone, unaccompanied in the holy place. In a word, the claim of unrestricted liberty of preaching by Christians is right. The assumption of priesthood by any, save as all believers are priests, is wrong. This is the dispensation of the out-pouring of the Spirit here, qualifying, for preaching, any who can do so; in a word—for speaking of Jesus (for the distinction made between speaking and preaching is quite unsustainable by Scripture, as any one may see if he takes the trouble), and that in which Christ alone exercises the priesthood within the veil in the presence of God for us.
This, then, is the force of these passages. The type of the pouring out of the Spirit in the camp with the gracious wish of Moses is the characteristic, the essential distinction of Christianity. Accordingly we find its primary presentation in the world, to be the Spirit poured out on the hundred and twenty who were assembled together, who therefore began to speak as the Spirit gave them utterance. And Peter, standing up, explains to the Jews that they were not drunk, but it was the thing spoken of by Joel—the undistinguished pouring out of the Spirit upon men of all classes—servants and handmaidens, their sons and their daughters prophesying—the pouring out of the Spirit upon all flesh. This was the characteristic of its agency, and this we have seen acted upon in the subsequent history; to deny this, is to mistake the power of the dispensation, and, I will add, to lose it. And what is the consequence? Irregular action goes on, and cannot be restrained, for kingly power cannot be assumed to such purpose, or they are taking the part of Dathan and Abiram; but the power of the Spirit, in which God would give competency to restrain evil, has been slighted; and nominal office, which has been relied on, affords no remedy, unless the rights which the Roman Catholic system has assumed be attached to it, which is the assumption of power not given to the church at all. It is not for me to assert what is the evil of the present day; I am sure it is not the overflowing boldness of testimony against evil; and if evil exist, the remedy is not in seeking to hinder or to reject (for hindered, it surely will not, and cannot be) the title of preaching the word which the Spirit of the Lord gives to whomsoever He listeth, but the cordial co-operation of those who hold the truth, by which the common energy (and common energy is infinite energy in this matter) may be exercised against all who do not hold the truth, and for the “seeking out of Christ’s sheep in the midst of this naughty world.”
One important advantage flowing from taking God’s order instead of man’s is at once seen; men will have their place and agency, whether within or without the assembly of the faithful, by virtue, not of nominal official situations formerly set up, but of the gifts which God has given them: a most important principle in the difference between Babylon and the divine economy. In truth, there are few things more important to remember, and especially in the present state of things, when human prescription regulates everything in matters of religion, that for anything but grace to be our criterion of station in the church (save in the awful responsibility of the individual, “these sinners against their own soul”)—must be wrong. In the last dispensation there was externally appointed order independent of qualification; in the present, the manifold grace and gifts of God in His church are the only means of adjusting and blending in true harmony the various parts and offices of the body of Christ.
With regard to one part of the work—evangelising, it is clear that a large portion of those who preach officially are incapacitated for it by their own act, as being shut up within restricted limits, and universally without any reference whatever to their individual qualifications, whether teachers, pastors, or evangelists, etc., or the particular necessities of the station in which they are to labour. To such it must be obvious, that the deficiency cannot be otherwise supplied than by those who may be willing to allow God to appoint the field of their operations, and to do the work of the Lord wheresoever they shall be led by Him to labour for His name’s sake (3 John 7), and who will be owned by Him, though a Diotrephes may reject them. Nothing argues greater want of submission to Christ—greater proof of preference of man’s authority to the Lord’s, than for any to discredit the free and unrestrained bearing forth of the gospel of the grace of God, who have placed themselves in circumstances where they are obliged to stop short of the work, for fear they should be discredited themselves; a work which they cannot do—which they have themselves put it out of their power to do, at least, without utter inconsistency; for in so doing, they would be acting in defiance of the authority which has placed them in their prescribed position. Such is their situation that, in following the leading of the Spirit of God in their work, they would in most cases, act unrighteously, for it would be against the authority which they recognise and act under.
Take a case, by no means uncommon, which illustrates the dilemma in which they place themselves. A large tract of the country is destitute of the gospel. One, in whose heart God has put the desire and whose mouth He has opened to speak of His love, goes, preaches there, and is blessed; gathers, out of darkness into light, many souls. The district is already full of persons professing to hold office in the church of Christ, but who are not shepherds. What is the labourer to do?—leave them for Socinians or enthusiasts to catch, or unheeded altogether? There is no godly righteousness in this. But it becomes a matter of faithfulness to Christ that he should preach to those who are ready to perish; yea, it is a necessity occasioned by the systems which sanction or have sanctioned the idle shepherds by whom he is surrounded. Now, which must an authorised minister, even though a Christian, recognise? He must recognise those idle shepherds, and he cannot recognise the faithful man of God; that is, he must associate himself with ungodliness because it is in nominal office, and not with the Spirit of God because out of it. But he has placed himself in a position in which he must be wrong either way; for if he did not own those shepherds, he would be acting in dereliction of his own responsibilities to the system to whose authority he has voluntarily submitted himself. Hence, also, the answer to the question, “Why not take the nominal office?” Because the source is so vitiated, that many conscientious men cannot identify themselves with it; and (a consideration which, to one who habitually waits on the Lord, is of no small moment) that the work and the scene of his operations are not regulated by the Lord’s guidance, and the varied exigencies of His service, exigencies which can be met only by entire and unfettered looking to the Spirit of the Lord, which is the Spirit of true order, for doing the Lord’s work according to His own time, place, and purpose—considerations without which His servants are but busy-bodies (busy out of place, 2 Thess. 3:11) whatever may be the apparent result of their labours, and which in many instances amount to the acquirement of a positive disability to fulfil the office to which God may have appointed the individual, as in the case of an evangelist.
I would make one further observation, suggested by the present question. In observing the infinity of contending interests with which the church is now filled, “the wars and fightings “amongst brethren—the restlessness of those who are spending their power and spirituality in defending one human system against another—the inquiry solemnly forces itself upon us whilst witnessing the surrounding scene of excitement, For what are we to contend? The apostle has answered the question, “Contend earnestly for the faith which was once delivered to the saints.” Let the inquiry then be calmly proposed to all our minds, For what are we contending? If it be for anything of secondary derivation, God cannot own it: the contention is for our own, and not for the things of Christ: for nothing since delivered is of His Spirit.
The preceding considerations tend to shew that opinions, supported by ever so fair an appearance of antiquity, are worthless—are deeply injurious to the glory of God, unless based upon His word. The end in view will have been fully answered if but one servant of Christ should be added to that field of labour; or the doubts removed from the mind of but one brother who hesitates to acknowledge, as his fellow-workers, those who have been called by the same Spirit. And let it be observed that in this, as in all things, the liberty of the believer is not the spirit of insubordination, but of entire subjection to the Spirit and the church of God, wheresoever they may be found; not the spirit of enthusiasm, but of a sound mind—of a mind at one with God, which alone gives righteous judgment. And let the people of God be waiting upon Him for His guidance. It is a time in which those who act with the simplest purpose will carry the work with them (for it is a day in which God is separating realities from forms), as that which can alone stand the universal dislocation which every institution is undergoing, and which the Spirit of God shall, and can, alone go through unscathed, and they that are led by Him unmarred and unhurt.
May God work abundantly by His Spirit, and fill His labourers with it! “The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few; pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest.”
15 The modern distinction between laity and clergy is not acknowledged here in any way whatever, as being totally unwarranted by scripture, and productive of the most disastrous effects in setting up a division between office and energy: that is, in accrediting an ungodly minister because ordained, and rejecting the man who has the Spirit of God, because of his not having passed through a system of human requirement.
16 Let the following words of the apostle be considered by those who, in common with the Roman Catholics, maintain this promise to be verified in what they term “apostolic succession”; “For I know this, that after my departure shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock; also, of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them,” Acts 20. Such was Paul’s view of apostolic succession, and one which, in principle, applied to the whole church, as it sank down together, after the decease of the apostles.
17 It is instructive to observe, that even in the Jewish worship there was far greater liberty of speech permitted than in the straitened systems of the present day. “Ye men and brethren, if ye have any word of exhortation for the people, say on.” There was an expectation and practice of mutual edification in their congregations, of which, in the present day, little or nothing is known.
18 Above all, is the exclusion of any who have the Spirit a grievous inconsistency in those who profess to own its influence, and to be guided by it; whatever excuse there may be for those who, being practically ignorant of its teaching, do throughout uniformly acknowledge the form without the power; for such are at least consistent.