It has been observed that at one time, say fifty years ago, good Christians were good Churchmen. They were zealous for their denomination—it was our “Zion;” the “cause” in their neighbourhood was loyally upheld, and “the minister” was regarded as representative of all that was excellent. Apart from him, no project was mooted, no service engaged in, no work for God initiated. Of late years a great change has taken place. The former condition no longer obtains. Evangelistic life and effort could no longer be cramped within the limits of sectarianism—it broke bounds. If the “powers that be,” clergy, elders, &c, went in with it so much the better for them; if not, the work went on without them. The gospel was preached by those who were unordained or unauthorised by man, but from glowing hearts and burning lips. Conversions followed, and the “life “of the Churches gravitated to these Evangelistic efforts, attracted by the warmth, the liberty, the evident blessing that rested upon such testimony, notwithstanding their being suspected, looked askance upon, and in some cases denounced by the unsympathetic authorities. The movements resulted in the formation of missions, evangelistic associations, &c, which were intended to be, and to a certain extent were, on unsectarian lines. In all such work the “lay” element predominated, “the ministers” in most cases standing aloof, or at most giving the instigators a patronising clap on the back. More and more such movements have become dissociated from the regular denominational systems, and the living Christian workers who with heart and soul go in for the gospel—working where they can, in kitchens, halls, tents, or open air—become less and less attached to sects and clergy, and more and more free to examine the Word of God and act upon its instructions.
In many cases, the traditional fetters being broken, it was not long till the truth of believers’ baptism dawned upon their souls. One and another followed in obedience to the Word and were baptized. Next, the privilege of believers as such to meet together for the observance of the Lord’s Supper began to be seen. Without formally disconnecting themselves from their denominations, they met to “break bread” once a month, and found it so blessed and edifying that the once-a-month device soon resolved itself into the scriptural weekly feast on the Lord’s day.
In certain cases the process has varied from the order given above, and a gifted man, with thousands of a congregation, seceding from the denomination with which he was connected, starts gospel work in a large hall, declaring the whole truth of God as far as he has learned it, and together with those who are willing to go on following the light, being baptized, and “breaking bread” as believers on the first day of the week in a separate hall.
Doubtless more or less of ignorance characterises all these movements. Knowledge as to the constructive truth of the Church, always a difficult subject, there may be very little. Excrescences there may be in some quarters, such as the free use of instrumental music, against which some consciences revolt, albeit with hopeless inconsistency they can avail themselves of it in their home sphere; collections may be taken without the unsaved being duly warned that they have no part nor lot in the matter—these and many other things time may modify and further light may mould into shape —but the whole movement is in the direction of the light, and they are blind indeed who do not trace in it the operation of God, the work of the Holy Spirit, the forth-putting of divine energy seeking for the liberty of scriptural ways and bursting the bonds of formalism and sectarianism.
On the other hand, there are gatherings of believers in all parts now who have grown up within the last thirty years or so, mainly out of gospel effort, outside all denominations, maintaining more or less of scriptural order, liberty, and discipline, and varying not a little in their views as to how far it is right to fraternize or co-operate with Christians belonging to the various denominations.
Some hold that anything short of absolute separation is to compromise the truth; that to be present at or take part in a meeting held under the auspices of an association is to practically endorse all that is done, and to sanction all the methods adopted. To appear as the Lord’s servant on such a platform is to become responsible for anything that goes on which may not be in accordance with apostolic simplicity.
Those who hold this view are right to maintain the separate path in accordance with their own convictions. But whenever they set themselves to judge those who do not see with them in this, they are interfering with that which is the prerogative of the Lord alone.
The servant of the Lord must not be the servant of men. If, explicitly or tacitly, he come under obligation to keep back any truth of God, he is subjecting himself to a yoke that is not the Lord’s.
It may not be the Lord’s will that he should speak on baptism, or fellowship, or ministry, or any disputed doctrine: he may minister many times and never be led to touch on such themes, but to be bound to keep them back would be to practically surrender his allegiance to Christ.
But wherever one is free to go with an open Bible, as the Lord’s servant unfettered, there he is at liberty to go without being judged by his brother. “Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? To his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up, for God is able to make him stand “(Rom. 14:4).
It has been found again and again that such missions, associations, &c, as we have referred to were quite free to receive whatever truth God gave them from His Word. Gladly and thankfully they have heard, received, and obeyed. Yet the servant of God who, at the risk of his reputation, went to help them, has been judged and condemned for compromising the truth! Better in such a case to be the condemned than the judge.
The question is therefore raised, At what point are those to be met who are feeling their way after truth and liberty? Is it the duty of those who have more light, and are able to edify, to hold aloof until every link with sectarianism is broken and scriptural order attained? Are multitudes of hungry souls desiring bread to be left without the food that we have to give them because they do not yet see their way to the separate place that is occupied by others, or have not faith to step out? If in the providence of God the way is opened for the Word to be ministered, is the servant of the Lord to stand outside and refuse his ministry until points of arrangement, &c, are adjusted to the measure of his light?
Whilst writing thus we would not be unmindful that this is essentially an age of self-will, and that commonly with the operations of the Spirit of God to which we have referred, there is a tendency on the part of some to strike out in independent ways, setting at defiance the claims of fellowship, and surrendering truth formerly held sacred.
It would require very special wisdom and grace to be truly a helper of such, lest it should prove that the intended help only resulted in the strengthening of evil that ought to have been uprooted.
In our judgment these are matters for the Lord’s servant to settle between himself and his Lord. One may be free, and indeed called, to go where another would feel compromised. It is not to be expected that one mind on such points of detail as to service will be readily attained. Paul and Apollos differed as to the desirability of the latter’s visit to Corinth at that time. Apollos acts on his own judgment; Paul does not judge him or reflect upon him.
Let the motive be tested now in the presence of God, and by His Word as it will be at the judgment-seat of Christ, and the fear of man that bringeth a snare will cease to enthral. It is sometimes well that the Lord’s servants are judged, or rather misjudged and spoken evil of. We are all so prone to be influenced by the thoughts of those with whom we are most closely associated that it is well if we are compelled to learn the divine art of walking before God and seeking to be well-pleasing to the Lord. Happy is he who can truly say, “I’ve now but One to please.”