Through unity and peace normally characterized the work at Grosvenor Street it must not be thought that the assembly there was altogether unaffected by the sad divisions that took place among Brethren from 1845 onwards. Only love and patience kept the meeting from becoming the cockpit of party strife.
The trouble began only sixty miles away at Plymouth. Here there was a large assembly where vast numbers waited upon the ministry of learned and gifted men such as J. N. Darby, Dr. Tregelles, H. W. Soltau, and B. W. Newton. There was much sweetness and power in the fellowship, and hundreds of people came from other churches each Lord’s Day to taste for themselves the joy of simple New Testament worship and ministry. Clergymen still officiating in the Church of England were often present and ministered. But, as one who shared the fellowship wrote afterwards: “It was too fair a scene for Satan to contemplate, and he must by some means mar its beauties and desolate its loveliness.”
Newton began to teach error and Darby charged him with it. The position was serious, but in itself it would not have caused the widespread divisions which later followed, for, by the grace of God, Newton himself was led in time to see the falseness of his teaching. Today there are no Brethren who hold Newton’s heretical view of the humanity of Christ. Yet, such is the cunning of the Devil, all the strife among Brethren began with this incident.
Even before the discovery of Newton’s heresy Darby had set up another assembly in Plymouth. After the error was known he began to insist that every assembly in the world should “cut off” the original Plymouth assembly, and refuse to accept into fellowship any person who came from it, whether personally tainted with the error or not. This brought him into conflict with George Müller at Bristol, who held that each assembly had the right to decide who should be accepted into its fellowship. It was upon this issue that Brethren split into “Open” and “Exclusive” sections.
Chapman went to a special meeting of leading Brethren held at Bath to consider the trouble. In the course of the discussion he addressed Darby personally.
“You should have waited longer before separating,” he said gravely.
“I waited six months,” returned Darby.
“But if it had been at Barnstaple, we should have waited six years,” said Chapman.
In the years that followed this first split, Chapman was often asked to visit assemblies where troubles had arisen. His solid, Scriptural advice was listened to with reverence. He became, in fact, one of the most respected counsellors of individual Brethren assemblies in the nineteenth century. It was here that his peculiar gift lay, and in this particular he was eminently successful. God had given him a firm, loving, Spirit-inspired tact which enabled him to handle delicate situations and difficult people to the glory of God and the blessing of the whole church. He needed it at Barnstaple sometimes. In the course of time an “Exclusive” assembly was set up there in a hall at the back of Rackfield House, and there were many painful episodes. But through it all he dealt lovingly and in patience with his revilers.
In 1869 it was alleged that false doctrine was countenanced at Grosvenor Street. This was entirely untrue. The oversight looked into the charge and, by examination, found that the brother accused did not hold the heresy complained of. None the less it was painful for Chapman to know that such stories as this circulated far and wide. Yet he indulged in no fleshly retaliation upon those who slandered the assembly. “We can say,” he wrote at that time, “that our spirit of love and intercession is perpetually growing in regard to our brethren who refuse intercourse with us. Whatever the party (alas, that we must use such a term!) to which they belong, they are of Christ’s flesh and bone.”
To deal with the situation, special meetings of prayer were called. It was felt that if all God’s people could be brought to know themselves, and judge themselves, this spirit of strife would cease. “Oh, that the spirit of self-judgment be full and complete according to the Word and by the power of the Spirit of God, and, oh, that it may run through the body of Christ!” he wrote. “Shall we not then have the joy of seeing the self-judged flowing together from all quarters, not needing, but forestalling the pressure of God’s hand in outward public judgments which are on the way?”
As the years passed, divisions among Brethren multiplied. In 1893 Chapman wrote: “Surely at this time and in the present state of the Children of God the great business everywhere is self-judgment for schism and division, after the pattern of Daniel in his 9th chapter. The Church of Christ at Corinth was never rent asunder as are the saints of God now; they always assembled in one place… Any outward division in any place without the lowliness of Philippians 2 and like Scriptures, would only aggravate the evil that is marring the testimony to the oneness of the Church of God and giving countenance to Satan’s imitation of it in the Church of Rome…”
It was in this letter that Chapman referred (in words already quoted) to the course of love and patience which he had followed whilst waiting for the old Strict rule to be abolished at “Ebenezer.” “What we now enjoy here of mutual love and the Spirit’s unity would never have been our portion had any other course been taken,” he affirmed. “We are doing our endeavour, our diligence, to perfect what God has in pitying love wrought among us.” And, indeed, despite the existence of another assembly, and the uttering of unhappy slanders, the work at Grosvenor Street went on from strength to strength, and there was hardly room to accommodate the congregations.
Sometimes false doctrines did actually raise their head in the assembly at Grosvenor Street, and when this happened they were immediately dealt with. One brother went astray on the question of the punishment of the wicked, affirming that it was not eternal. He had been a valued helper and Chapman loved him greatly, but he was excluded from fellowship. On this point Chapman wrote to Müller in 1871: “Knowing that in Christ we have redemption through His blood, and that by the cross of the Son of God we escape the second death and its everlasting punishment, and that everlasting life is ours by His death, we cannot but look with grief and holy indignation at the now wide-spreading doctrine which limits the duration of the punishment of the wicked. Towards the erring ones we have the bowels of Christ; with the error we would deal with iron hand… Let us use all gentleness, and patience, and long-suffering in showing by the sacred Scriptures how great the folly and guilt of the pride of wisdom which would bind the hands of God’s justice and limit the duration of the punishment of the wicked… Yet if all ways of gentleness and of that wisdom which cometh from above be set at nought, then in faithfulness to the Lord and kindness to the erring ones we must, as touching fellowship, ‘avoid them’ and ‘reject them,’ for they do the part of the heretic. Yet inasmuch as not a few are, we doubt not, regenerate, we must still plead with God, and also watch for opportunities of entreating them, that they may be recovered from the enemy’s snare.” It is good to know that the brother in question was eventually led to see the falsity of the teaching he had embraced.
In dealing with error, whether in doctrine or practice, an elder needs to be on guard lest he speaks or acts in the flesh. Love and patience are the Spirit’s answer to every such situation. Lack of these has brought about most of the divisions between the children of God today. Chapman felt no satisfaction when a difficulty had been resolved by the exclusion of a brother from fellowship. He knew that such a course was sometimes essential, but it never gave him pleasure, and he never forgot that brother, but followed him in prayer through the years if he remained unrepentant. One such man had declared that he would never again have anything to do with Chapman. On no conditions, he said, would he speak to him. But one day an awkward situation arose. They both found themselves walking towards one another on the same pavement in the open street. What could be done? When they met, Chapman, knowing all that the other had said about him, put his arms around him, saying: “Dear brother, God loves you, Christ loves you, and I love you.” This simple, loving action broke down the man’s hatred, and led him to repentance. Very soon he was breaking bread at Grosvenor Street once more.
Such loving conduct was Chapman’s strength, and marked him out as a true brother. But many, even among the Lord’s people, are more impressed by the loud voice of controversy than by the wooing voice of love. Scoring victories over one’s opponents is, of course, more spectacular than instructing them in meekness. So Chapman had many critics on all sides.
It is only fair to say of the two other leading figures of those years, Darby and Müller, that they were both holy men, and by no means devoid of love. The position seems to be that each member of this remarkable trio manifested one gift above all others. With Müller it was faith; with Darby it was hope; and with Chapman it was love. Müller’s faith was evident in the Orphan work; Darby’s hope was seen in his expositions of the Second Coming; and Chapman’s love appeared in his quiet ministry of reconciliation.
Chapman mourned over the bitter and rash dealing which was sometimes carried on in the Name of Christ. For all who would listen he had words counselling restraint. His constant fear was that, in seeking to maintain the truth, men should act in the flesh and contrary to the Scriptures. To one who had to deal with error he wrote: “The matter you write of is one of the gravest that can be in the Church of God. Beware of any thought of unbelief; Christ is made wisdom to us; a patient waiting on God for unity of judgment will bring present comfort amidst all the sorrow, and give to those who have to converse with the erring one tenderness and gentleness with decision and wisdom. We shall help in prayer, and hope to hear further from you. As to yourself, dear——, be sure the promise is yours: ‘He that handleth a matter wisely shall find good.’”
It has been suggested that had J. N. Darby gone down to Barnstaple in July, 1849, and discussed the whole situation frankly with Chapman, instead of going to Bristol to see Müller, the cleavage between “Open” and “Exclusive” Brethren would not have occurred. No one can be sure of that, however. But there is one thing certain. If all concerned in those unhappy divisions had exercised the love, patience and restraint which Chapman always counselled, the Brethren as a whole would have continued to present a spiritual unity according to the mind of Christ.