"A Circle of Fellowship," or Independency?

Another question must now be considered, which unites itself to that which we
have been just considering, We shall find that "independency" is one of the
most successful means of evasion of scriptural discipline that could perhaps be
imagined,- one of the most successful snares by which the children of God can
be seduced into resistance to the will of God, while to themselves they seem to
be standing only for the principles of the Word, against "confederacy," for
purity, and unsectarian maintenance of the Body of Christ. We must therefore
look seriously and with sufficient care into the matter : first, at what
independency really is, and then at the fruits which make manifest the

In its simplest and boldest form independency appears as the denial
of any scriptural authority for any "circle of fellowship" outside of the
individual gathing, wherever it may be; and this denial is made in the
interests, as they imagine, of unsectarian recognition of the one Church only,
which is the body of Christ. The formation and maintenance of any such circle
is, they maintain, sectarian, and the adoption by such circle of a common
discipline is Sectarianism full-blown. It constitutes the whole a "party,"
which may take the name of Christ, as some at Corinth did, and only be perhaps
on that account to be the more avoided, as making that precious Name an
instrument of division.

This charge is not, it may be, that of denying the
Name of Christ, but it approaches it so nearly as to make it of the most
serious consequence. Those who hold to a circle of fellowship and yet refuse
the adoption of a sectarian name, with what is implied in this, can neither
afford to give up their claim of gathering simply to the Name of Christ, nor
accept the truth of what is charged against them. Let us examine then what is
meant by these assertions, neither shaken from our convictions by their
boldness, nor refusing to bring all these to the test of Scripture, as often as
may be needful. That which is true will only gain in its hold on us by every
fresh examination, and the only danger is in this being lightly and not
thoroughly carried out. We should be thankful for any suggestions that awaken
fresh inquiry.

Now what is a "circle of fellowship"? That all such is not
forbidden must be believed by the objector himself, if he have but "two or
three " gathered with himself in any local assembly. For this, I suppose, is
not the whole "assembly of God" there, but something indefinitely less than
this. Yet, here there must be a within and without, a being, in some sense, of
us or not of us,-a something which is saved from being a party, not by having
no walls or door, but by its having no arbitrary, no merely human, terms of
admission. If it have no terms, then it is a mere rabble of lawless men, and as
such to be refused by every Christian.

If you say, "No, it is Scripture to
which we are subject," that brings in at once the implication that it is
Scripture as you see it, not as your fellow-Christians see it; and you take
your place as before the Lord, to be judged of Him in regard to this. Your
being a separate somewhat, a "circle of fellowship," does not constitute you a
party: you own Christians everywhere, as members of the body of Christ, and
receive them wherever a scriptural hindrance to their reception does not exist,
and you speak of being gathered simply to Christ's Name, without an idea that
you are making the Name of Christ a badge, or sign, or instrument, of

Well, then, in the place, at least, there exists a gathering of
Christians that I can recognize,- I suppose, ought to recognize,- apart from
the whole body of Christians in the place. I say, "ought," because I have
duties in regard to the assembling of ourselves together; and here alone I find
those with whom I can assemble, no unscriptural condition being imposed on me.
Were there another assembly in the same place and of the same character, there,
I should have to ask why they were not together: for the sin of schism is a
grave one in Scripture, and I should have of necessity to refuse this.

then, in this place, I repeat, there is a gathering that I can own, and must,-
suppose, now, I went elsewhere and lived - found perhaps there also one that I
had equally to own as gathered to Christs Name alone, would it be right for me
in the new place to refuse to own as a separate company, those in that from
which I came, whom, when I was there, I had to own, and whom, if I were now
there, I should have to own? Is it possible that my going from New York to
Boston should make that wrong for me at Boston which at New York would be quite
right, and if I went back there, would be right again? If so, that is
independency in earnest; or else it is the most curious shifting of right and
wrong that one can conceive of; morality shifting every few miles of the road,
whichever way I travel. And yet, if not, we are connected in principle, to a
"circle of fellowship"!

The recognition of each other by such gatherings
throughout the world is, therefore, right; and every. thing opposed to it is
false and wrong. Nay, it is impossible to maintain practically, if principles
are of any value to us. For, were I taking the journey spoken of, must I not
inquire for those who are of one mind with us in Boston? and would those in
Boston expect anything else of me? To refuse a circle of fellowship may be held
as a theory: the fact will always be discordant with the theory. The theory
itself cannot be truthfully accepted by any one who has given it any sober
reflection,. except it mean independency of the grossest and narrowest kind;
that is, associating where one will, and recognizing obligations nowhere but
where I will. And this would be indeed the most perfect sectarianism that could
well exist.

But we are to recognize the whole body of Christ! Surely, but
not their unscriptural associations. In the interests of the body of Christ I
refuse denominations; but in the same interests I am bound to accept the circle
of unsectarian fellowship. The gracious words which, providing for a day of
failure and confusion, sanction the two or three gathered to the Lord's blessed
Name, sanction such gatherings in every place, and therefore a circle of such
gatherings. It would be as sectarian to refuse identification with these as to
take our place with the various denominations. Nay, it would be more so. Nor
would it save us from this, to say we were acting for the good of the whole
Church of God, when from Scripture itself the disproof is so easy.

another step.

To accept these is to accept their discipline. For the Lord's
sanction of the gathering is the express sanction of their discipline. Of
course, I do not mean by that that they can add to Scripture, or invent a
character of discipline that is not found there; nor yet that He could sanction
what might be a mistaken judgment. He is the Holy and the True, the Lord and
Master of His people always: and that is quite enough to say as to all this.
But authority for discipline these "two or three" have; and woe to him who
resists its rightful exercise:

"If he hear not the Church, let him be to
thee as a heathen man and a publican" is said of just such feeble gatherings as

It is plain that precisely the same thing is to be said for the
discipline as for the gathering itself: if it is to be respected at A where it
is exercised, it is just as much to be respected at B or at C. If it be the
decision of a local matter, then the Lord has plainly put it into the hands of
those who are in circumstances to judge of it aright, though protest and appeal
are surely to be listened to, and they are bound to satisfy consciences where
honestly exercised about it.

As to a question of truth, as such it affects
all consciences; it can be put before all: no local gathering has authority in
any such matter; it would be making a creed to be subscribed. The truth as to
Christ is a deeper and more vital matter, for we are gathered to His Name.
Where truth of this kind is subverted the gathering exists no more, except as
an instrument in the enemy's hand, and is to be refused, with all who take part
with it.

If on the other hand, the question be of facts, then those who
have them are bound (if these affect more than the local gathering) to make
them known to their brethren; and here a circular letter may rightly have its
place, not to establish a rule or principle of action, but as a witness: which
of course is open to question, as all facts are, if there be contrary evidence,
or that given be insufficient. No circular has authority in itself: it is
purely a question of facts and of the credibility of the testimony.

these limitations, which are the results of the frailty and fallibility which
are common to us all, we have necessarily to own a circle of fellowship and the
discipline connected with it, if we would be free from the charge of real

And real independency is not of God, but always and
everywhere acts against Him. It is to make the members of the same body say to
each other, "we have no need of you," and to deny the unity of the Spirit which
should pervade the body. The more we lament and refuse the sectarianism which
exists, the more are we compelled, and shall rejoice to own the body of Christ
wherever possible. And this circle of fellowship, while it is not the "body,"
furnishes us with the means of owning this in a truthful and holy way, so far
as the state of ruin in which the Church exists permits it to be done. With
love to all Christ's own,- with an open door for the reception of all according
to the conditions of truth and holiness,- such a circle is not sectarian, but a
protest against it, while the meeting that refuses connection with it is
sectarian in fullest reality. And this is what is meant by the "ground" of the
one body. It is as different as possible from any claim to be the one body, and
does not in the least imply any sectarian conditions of intelligence in order
to communion. The maintenance of a common dis-cipline is in no wise sectarian,
but part (and an essen-tial part) of that communion itself: absolutely
necessary if the holiness of God be the same thing wherever it is found, and
not a thing for the "two or three" anywhere to trifle with as they list.

Independency, in setting aside the practical unity of the Church of God, sets
aside a main guard of holi-ness itself. It makes this no object of common care;
it does not seek common exercise about it. It releases from the sense of
responsibility as to the house of God: it is my own house I am to keep clean
after my own fashion. And this real laxity as to the people of God at large
(but which is so consoling to an unexercised conscience, that it is the great
charm undoubtedly to multitudes to-day) naturally has the effect of lowering
one's estimate of holiness altogether, and so prevents my own house being kept
really clean.

Where, however, a circle of fellowship is in fact maintained,
along with and spite of the protest against it, or where there is not the
maintenance of a common discipline - where perhaps as the natural fruit of
independency also, the unholy principle is contended for that an assembly
cannot be judged for that which would compel the judgment of an individual,
there, as is natural to expect, any local discipline almost can be evaded by a
little dexterity. If the gathering at B will not receive you from A, it will
from C, and C will receive you from A. No one is safe anywhere from the
violation of a discipline which he himself recognizes as a scriptural one. Any
par. ticular person, if he be not too prominent, becomes lost to the eye amid
the maze of bewildering differences. He who has conscience, and would fain be
clear, has soon to resign himself to a general hope that what looks so like
confusion will in the end conserve the interests of holiness; or in despair, to
wash his hands of what he cannot avoid.

Yet it is an ensnaring system; for
in this way pessimism and optimism both can find apology for it, and go on with
it. One gets free of an amazing amount of trouble; and while not seeming to
have given up all ecclesiastical ties, as many have, yet be practically as free
as they for the gospel and from the wearying responsibility of being one's
brother's keeper. Why should we be? when we only get our trouble for our pains,
find a narrow path instead of the broad, open one, which is so pleasant to all
of us, and for this have only to shut our eyes at the proper time, and ignore
what it seems we cannot help. And in fact the countless small breaches of
independency make less show than the terrible rents Which we are exposed to
otherwise. Why not let this sad-faced Merarite go, with his pins and cords of
the tabernacle always getting into entanglement, and be content with Kohath and
with Gershom?

Still, if the TABERNACLE OF THE LORD is to be set up in the
wilderness, how shall we do without the pins and cords?

In result it will
be found that it is the truth of God which suffers, and tends to pass away and
be lost. What wonder when we begin with choosing what we will have of it, and
what we will discard? Fellowship becomes a thing of most uncertain quality: and
what wonder, if obedience to the Word have anything to do with fellowship?
Worship is largely displaced in behalf of service: for we have lost the
necessary pins and cords. We may go on with the help of what truth we can still
borrow and find room for; but the truth tends somehow continually to slip away
from us; and in the jangle of many utterances, it is ever getting to be of less

One's voice may be little heard in a day like this; but I would do
what I can to press upon the people of the Lord first of all their Master's
claim. I press that this independency, little as one may imagine it, little as
many may care to entertain it even as a question, means ultimately shipwreck to
the truth of Christ, because it means independency of Him. One may find in it
plenty of associates, for it makes little demands upon one and gives the kind
of liberty which is so coveted today. The authority of Christ is not in it. It
may support itself by the help of other names - names in repute as Christians
too- and be in honor. It cannot have the commendation which Philadelphia, spite
of its "little power," finds from her gracious Lord :- "THOU HAST KEPT MY WORD,