and to Individual Conscience
Maintenance of Scriptural Discipline.
Preface to Present Issue.
It is with a firm conviction that unscriptural divisions had driven us into an unscriptural position and with a sincere desire to help the Lord's people who are truly exercised as to their path in the difficulties of these days, that we send forth this reprint of our brother Mr. F. W. Grant's pamphlet, "The Relation of Assemblies to Assemblies." It was first issued previous to the conference in Plainfield in 1892, and has not, that we are aware of, been withdrawn. The teaching of the tract was accepted by brethren in South Brooklyn and other places, but for acting consistently therewith they have been cut off from fellowship with both the writer and publishers of the tract and all those in their "circle of fellowship." It is true that Mr. Grant has since written another tract entitled; "A Divine Movement", the tendency of which was to undo the work of the previous tract, (Relation of Assemblies) and to re-establish their former sectarian position by again building the fence around "their own circle." It is because many brethren have not read. "The Relation of Assemblies" and can no longer obtain it from the publishers, that we re-issue it, and commend it to their prayerful consideration.
For ourselves we wish to say that we have not joined any party of brethren. Our business is not with parties, but with individuals. We do not receive or put away parties. We have no instructions in scripture to do so; in fact we do not recognise parties, but the one body of Christ; nor membership of parties, but that of the one body. Our responsibility therefore is with individuals who come to us. We have no instructions in scripture in regard to receiving any but those who come to us, and if any come to us and bring not the doctrine of Christ, we receive them not. We are members of nothing, but of the one body, and as such we receive those sound in the faith, as being partakers of the same hope and subject to the same Lord as ourselves.
We believe this to be a scriptural position and we are glad that Mr. Grant has pointed it out in this tract so much better than we could do. We therefore commend it to you, simply asking you to prove it by scripture and hold fast what is good.
This tract can be obtained, also copies of "Fellowship in Closing Days" and "Our Attitude Toward Fellow Members of the Body of Christ" by addressing
Edward G. Mauger,
415 6th Street,
South Brooklyn, N.Y.
Brooklyn, June 15, 1901.
An Examination and an Appeal.
To all whose hearty endeavour is to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace: —
Beloved Brethren, —
That the hand of God is upon us is but too evident. Our shame is public. It requires no spirituality to see that exactly in that which we have professedly sought we have failed most signally. The unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace is just, most surely, what we have not kept. It is easy, of course; to reproach each other with this, and to protest that we of any one particular section are free from the responsibility of this. It is not possible to escape, after all, the reproach which God has permitted to be against us all, — the reproach, not of here or there some local divisions, but of division from end to end; and not where separation from manifest evil has been a divine necessity, but upon points of ecclesiastical discipline or of doctrine confessedly in no wise fundamental, — too minute, in fact, to be made a ground of division by the narrowest and most sectarian of sects around us! Yet we all disclaim as injurious the accusation of being sects.
Some of us have separated from the doctrine that "in Christ" is state, not standing!
Some, from the doctrine that Old-Testament saints had life in the Son!
Some, because they differed as to the judgment of an assembly with regard to fellowship with one of the divisions of a divided gathering!
And on account of such things, those who could receive Christians freely from the denominations around, refuse absolutely and decidedly, saints with whom in every other respect they are in the fullest accord, and whom they do not charge with any thing else they would call ungodly!
And more, one of the greatest and most decisive arguments used and admitted to uphold these divisions is that we are to "endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace"!
Alas! who hath bewitched us, that such things should be possible at all, — that we should not be able to recognize the true character of an endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit by such means as cutting off all who differ from us, and building the wall of separation highest where the real difference is in fact the slightest?
I know, of course, the facts will be disputed. They are too condemnatory, seen simply in the light, for one to care thus to face them. Yet is it not better at once to face them, than to leave them to be met for the first time where we must each one of us give account of himself to God?
I desire, as now made manifest to Him, to look, Scripture in hand, at what has wrought such ruin among us. The outward steps, indeed, I can trace only. There are secret springs which are beyond my cognizance, and a general state too, no doubt, which has brought the displeasure of God upon us, and forced Him in very faithfulness to afflict us. Certainly, if we do not judge ourselves for all this, real recovery will be impossible. The warning word to Ephesus is surely ours to-day, "Thou hast left thy first love." Of this, worldliness in all its shapes will be the result, and fleshy pretension under forms of godliness, and what not; for the soul that has ceased to be satisfied with Christ will thus reveal its shame. The remedy is only for each of us to get back to the "place where his tent was at the beginning," and that is, "unto the place of the altar which he made there at the first." (Gen. 13:4.)
But beside this moral cause, is there not another? Are there no principles which have been accepted as truth, and which have worked disastrously? Is there not reason for testing afresh by the Word our ecclesiastical principles, as, e.g., those of fellowship and discipline, in view of the course to which they have led? If "by their fruits ye shall know them" is a test recognized in Scripture, is not the fact of three divisions in five years enough to beget suspicion that all is not right here? especially when, as already said, we find the plea of unity urged constantly for division, and most efficacious (strangely enough) in producing this.
Many at the present time are involved in deeper trouble than would be found in answering the question: Which of these divisions has truth and righteousness upon its side? And it is little to be doubted that many are deprived of energy to act for God by the palsy of fear that some fundamental error must be somewhere in principles which they had believed divine. Can it be of God, they ask, that questions which can scarcely be made intelligible to many a simple soul must be forced upon all, under the severest ecclesiastical penalties, with the certainty, at any rate, of being broken up by them; and that those who, attracted by the plea that the Church of God is one, seek for something in principle as broad and catholic as this implies, should be confronted with the Park-Street judgment and much else, as problems needing to be solved before they can discern which of several conflicting yet kindred bodies can justify a claim to this?
Is there, then, left no plain path in which the feet even of the lame may not be turned out of the way — may even be healed? At one time, as we all know, we had something easily defined and easily maintainable by Scripture, — carrying true consciences, not perplexing them. Have we suffered this to be taken from us? Could we have lost it without being ourselves in some way guilty for the loss? Was it not while we slept we lost it? Assuredly, the way of the Lord is still and ever a way not needing great intellect or attainments for its discovery, but a way in which the wayfaring man, though a fool, should not err. Would it be like our God if it were otherwise?
God leads, not by the intellect, but by the conscience. It is thus the simplest are reached as surely as the cleverest, — nay, more surely, if these are not proportionately humble; for "He taketh the wise in their own craftiness," but "the humble will He lead in judgment, the humble He will teach His way." The conscience, though it needs indeed enlightenment, is that in which the supremacy of God is maintained over the soul. And He would have every one thus in His presence, guided by His Word, with no third party between Him and it. "Whatsoever is not of faith is sin;" and faith is only in God, through His word. No one for whom I write will contest this, and yet it needs to be insisted on. The maintenance of the rights of conscience becomes thus of fundamental importance for the soul; for it is, in fact, the maintenance of God's rights over it. And these are the same with regard to old and young, man and woman, leader and led. Whatever interferes with the conscience thus being before God is of the enemy therefore, as against Him.
Now ecclesiasticism, — that is to to say, a clerical system, — always does interfere with this. The church gets to have an authority which limits the authority of the Word. No doubt it assumes to be derived from this, and in this way to uphold it; but this only makes it more insnaring, where yet, as so constantly is the case, the Word is in fact set aside by the new court of appeal, — more plainly makes it the work of the enemy to dishonor Christ and injure His people. And few realize the extent of the injury which may be done, where apparently the matter itself is of very little importance. But look at the apostle's own "exercise" to "have always a conscience void of offense toward God and toward men;" consider his anxiety that even the faith of one should not be made a cause of stumbling to another, by leading him where he could not be in faith himself, and judge how important in his eyes the maintenance of conscience was. The matter about which it was exercised might be wholly indifferent; that did not affect the gravity of the result where it was violated: "through thy knowledge shall thy weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?"
Who can indeed estimate the consequences of forcing or persuading one to act against or beyond the light he has from God? The Spirit grieved, the heart at unrest, if not soon hardened through the deceitfulness of sin, — with these things how many others will surely combine, if there be not repentance, to drag the soul downward — "sin"! When shall we fairly, fully, practically accept the apostle's definition, "whatsoever is not of faith IS SIN''?
But in this light, how grave a calamity must be the forcing of every one to take sides upon such questions as have of late occupied so many! forcing, under the severest ecclesiastical discipline, to judge of matters which must be learned by gleaning truth from various and contradictory testimony! How great the temptation here to act without real exercise before God, under the strongest personal motive, whatever that may be! and how many are thrown into the hands of leaders from sheer inability to decide in a difficult case! But to this we must return at another time; my only intention here is to urge upon all how grave a thing it is to have to do with the consciences of others, how solemn to walk with an unexercised one one's self: "Holding faith, and a good conscience," says the apostle; "which some having put away concerning faith have made shipwreck" (1 Tim. 1:19).
The matter of assembly-decisions becomes thus a serious one for all concerned in them. Is it not one as to which there has been great laxity? and must not this be — has it not been — attended with correspondingly grave results? In how many places has the brothers' meeting been usurping the place of the assembly in how few, comparatively, have women had their due place in its decisions. Yet the conscience of a woman is of equal importance with the man's in God's sight. Again, the denial of the necessity of unanimity has been carried so far as to make even the seeking it a point of small consequence for many, and to leave no real line to distinguish between the judgment of an assembly and of a party in it. Clerisy has in fact here found ample opportunity. Instead of waiting upon God to bring all together, and patience in the instruction of those ignorant, — the very delay and hindrance being used of Him for more exercise and dependence on Him, the will of man has (how often!) carried the day, and been honored as zeal and faithfulness to Him. Yet we may be sure no action can be of Him which involves the violation of one honest conscience. And is it not true that, for many, the judgment of the assembly has ceased to be that for which they have any responsibility, or any practical part in it at all?
Can we wonder that clerisy has grown, as it has grown undeniably? and that discipline has come to be in the hands of men of leisure, of gift, and influence of other kinds. So much so, that in very many places the very knowledge of what is in question in the late divisions has been as far as possible withheld from those held and treated more as "laity" than in many of the systems they denounce for this.
All the while, the authority of the assembly is exalted in such a way as to set aside the individual conscience, which God never does. Whatever the authority of the assembly, it must be reconciled with this, or it cannot itself appeal to the conscience. This should be evident. And as long as the assembly means men, and not God, it will always be open to the conscience to say, as the apostles did, "Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye."
Precious is the Church indeed to Christ; he who despises it despises Him who has loved and given Himself for it. But what does "the Church" mean, if it be not the membership of His body? And here He overlooks not the least and lowliest: to touch one is to touch all, and to sin against Him whose love embraces all.
But may not this give an opening for independency? May not pride and self-will usurp the place of conscience, and resist under this cover what is truly of God? Certainly this last is more than possible; but the power of God is with us to expose this, and to pride and self-will it is not meant that we should give way. Only let us remember that the spirit of independence may be found in a majority as well as in a minority, — nay, in ninety-nine out of a hundred as against the hundredth. We are encompassed with dangers for which the Lord alone is our sufficiency; but let us recognize them on all sides at least.
Again, as to this authority of the assembly which has been so pitilessly used for the coercion of timid souls, whatever it may have, it cannot go beyond or be in contradiction to the Word which is its charter. And that Word puts as the first characteristic of the path which we are individually called to follow, — "righteousness:" "Follow righteousness, faith, love, peace, with those that call upon the Lord out of a pure heart." (2 Tim. 2:22.)
This, mark, is "separation from evil God's principle of unity;" for it is by the common following of righteousness, faith, love, peace, that the pure in heart are brought (and kept) together. Through how many intricate questions may the simplest find their way if they will walk thus by their conscience in the light of the moral principles which lead so surely. Intricacies and entanglements come through the substitution for these of questions for the intellect rather that the conscience; and thus often the most apparently intelligent get most insnared, Can the church have authority to ordain unrighteousness? or that one should go on in uncertainty as to whether it is righteousness or not he follows? It is in the light we are called to walk: Can the church be authorized to ordain darkness and not light? Can the Word say, "Follow righteousness" and yet bind us to receive church decisions, righteous or unrighteous? Can that, finally, which is unrighteous be bound in heaven?
Such questions admit only of one answer. When, therefore, question is seriously raised as to an assembly judgment, we are bound to apply the moral test. Not bound or entitled to admit suspicion, surely, without real ground — that is another thing. But where question is raised with apparent reason, we are bound to answer it. It is really impossible to believe in the infallibility of an assembly and to believe in Scripture also, — to say nothing of the saddest evidences continually before our eyes; and absolute authority belongs only to what is infallible. Here, Rome is consistent, though only to be more completely in error. If she bid you "hear the church," it is on the ground that the church cannot lead you astray; but for one to assert that the church must be heard whether in fact she lead you astray or not, this is more foolish and contradictory than Rome herself.
They would add, indeed, to this, "If the judgment be wrong, God will show it." But in order for this to avail me, I must be quite clear that He has not shown it.
On the other hand, let it not be supposed that responsibility is meant to be enforced of taking up a judgment God has not put into our hands. If He would have us do it, He will give competency for it. And we have to be careful as to this, for there is hardly a surer way to err. And as I have said, suspicions merely are not to be entertained. We are not to hunt out evil. It is a thing full of danger, whatever be the motive. When question is really raised, and it comes within our sphere to judge, then woe will be to those who refuse righteous judgment.
Questions then being raised, and responsibility being laid on us to answer it, as to an assembly judgment, we have to consider the Scripture mode of answering, as indeed of making, the appeal against it. Here is manifestly a difficulty that has been felt, and is felt. The actual method pursued has been in result as unsatisfactory as it is destitute of any Scripture principle to commend it. The method has been to appeal to the local assemblies around for a new decision, and thus to initiate a division which might extend far and wide. Thus, in fact, have we been again and again broken up. For one assembly has, in fact, no jurisdiction over another, — no title to be heard more than another. And the same is true of any number of such assemblies. It would be merely the principle of a majority upon a large scale, — a principle, we are all clear, is not sanctioned by the Word. By this counter-action, then, of local assemblies, we are committed at once to division.
Yet it is where the actual gathering to Christ's name is there is He in the midst, and whatsoever they bind on earth is bound in heaven. This neither insures the infallibility of those so gathered, nor implies — as so many apparently now suppose — that to deny the righteousness of their action is to deny Christ to be in their midst. Where in Scripture is the warrant for such a thought? What they "bind on earth" is indeed "bound in heaven;" but can any "bind" unrighteousness in the Lord's name? Surely not: such an act cannot be "bound" by any body of men whatever. The character of the act is necessarily implied in the word used by the Lord.
They are fallible men, and may not be subject to Him who is in the midst. In this case they bind nothing, — no, not on earth even. Let its unrighteousness be proved, then it is proved that it has no authority, and never had. But a wrong act on their part in no wise proves the Lord is not among them, but on that they have not been guided by Him, as they ought. If it did prove this, how many gatherings over the world would it not disfranchize? Nay, of how many can we be sure at all that they are not mere lifeless corpses, as it were, already, out of which the Lord their life has long departed! What utter uncertainty would this doctrine of Christ's presence in the midst being dependent upon their being at all times with Him, introduce into all gatherings every where, if carried out! How contrary to His grace is the whole thought!
But if the assembly fail, or appeal be made against its decision, to whom now is the appeal? and in what way should this be carried out? As to the first question, it is easily answered. For the reason already stated, to the local assembly it is not, but to that which the local assembly represents — the Church at large. This is the only alternative and it is as simple as instructive to consider that at this point the assembly as a whole takes the place of any local assembly when judging of any ordinary case. There is more difficulty, more gravity, no doubt, but the application of the very same principles in the one case and in the other. To see this, helps us also in whatever necessary differences result from the larger sphere.
Let us look, then, first, at what these principles are, as Scripture gives them to us, — the principles upon which we act, or should act, in any ordinary case of discipline.
As to fellowship in its open expression at the table of the Lord, it is with all Christians, truly such, with only this limitation in Scripture, that we put out from among ourselves a "wicked person" 1 Cor. 5:13).
It has been urged, indeed, that 1 Cor. 10:100 gives a principle which would subject to discipline, and it may be excision, another class who cannot be characterized as wicked persons, namely, "those who reject the practice of admittedly divine principles." If it be meant by this "divine principles admitted such by themselves," it is clear that they should be rejected, but on no other ground than that of wickedness. But in fact it would be too open wickedness to be owned by any; and this cannot be what is intended.
Will too may be at work in the rejection of divine principles in such a way as although they are not admitted to be divine, yet it may be seen to be nothing else but will. Where this is plain, this case must be classed with the other. But it needs plain proof, where otherwise the walk seems godly, and it will not do to put people down in a mass as doing this.
If it mean "admitted by others," this would be making intelligence a test, and they might on the same principle be made responsible for the whole body of divine truth, however ignorant, as if knowing it. It would lead to the narrowest and most sectarian ground. Every adherent of a denomination would be necessarily excluded, and many more than these.
The text appealed to in no wise favors this. It identifies the participants in Israel's sacrifices with the altar to which they belong, and similarly the participants in idolatrous offerings. Where is the warrant for the application of the fact that "ye cannot be partakers of the Lord's table and the table of devils," to any ignorant breach of divine principles? The question is not as to the identification of (say) a Baptist or Methodist with the table to which he belongs, but as to our identification of ourselves with that by admitting him. But there is no real question. The table of a sect does not involve any altar other than our own, — which is Christ Jesus; and to apply the text thus would be itself sectarian.
Three characters of wickedness the Word specifies: moral evil, the leaven of 1 Cor. 5; doctrinal evil, the leaven of Galatians and Matt. 16; and willful association with this, as in 2 Jno. 10, 11. I do not need, for those to whom I am speaking, to insist more on these. But there is need to ask, Can we scripturally refuse any of the Lord's people except on one of these grounds? Perhaps most would agree we cannot, while many, however, would so indefinitely extend the idea of these as to narrow their fellowship practically much more than this. Our inquiry will have therefore to be carried further.
It will be owned that there are many evils in Christians for which Scripture would enjoin another remedy than excision. This, in fact, is the very last thing to be thought of when nothing else will possibly meet the case. All sin is sin, and to be dealt with solemnly as such; but the Word of God would carefully discriminate between cases that to the eye of many would seem the same, and pronounce its censure differently, with a more perfect holiness than ours. The one overtaken in a fault is to be restored in the spirit of meekness; showing surely that the test of these cases is, in fact, the capacity to be restored. Yet such an one may be after all out of our reach individually, and easily put at a distance from us by failure in the spirit which is here insisted on. Judgment, alas! is easy, and often requires no spirituality at all, while it is the readiest way of maintaining an apparent holiness, as well as a certain kind of unity also. We easily get rid of what distresses and rebukes us, by a surgery which, however, meets no internal disease. We can fling off, and forget. Law is natural to us, and is holy; but it condemns, not heals. "Sin shall not have dominion over us, because we are not under the law, but under grace.'' Yet, alas! even among saints saved by it it, Grace must often be under the reproach that she "receiveth sinners."
It is to be feared that more and more in practice the assembly's part in discipline is looked upon as to be the executioner of what is really law, not grace. The "bowels of Christ" toward His own are forgotten; and the word to the Galatians becomes a necessary admonition for us, "If ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another."
What an instruction for us is the type of Leviticus 13, where the determination of the dread disease which in Israel excluded from the camp and from the house of God, and which is for us the picture of what among us excludes from fellowship at the table of the Lord, is treated of! Leviticus 13 is directly to the point in the matter of 1 Cor. 5. And here how carefully do we find maintained what is due to the Lord and necessary for His people, while the hasty action, so repugnant both to love and righteousness, is discountenanced and rebuked.
There were many things which might be confounded with leprosy, as the rising, the scab, and the bright spot. There might be at once what sufficiently distinguished the plague of leprosy from these, as the hair turned white, and the plague plainly deeper than the skin of the flesh. Here was something deeply effecting the man himself, no external transient disorder, nor with which man might deal. With leprosy, God alone could. The plainly declared leper was one, thus, who was put away from men, into the hands of God, as was the wicked person of the epistle to the Corinthians.
But all cases were not of this nature. If, then, the unmistakable signs were wanting, but yet there was real cause for apprehension, — some manifest spot, for God would not allow acting upon mere suspicion, — then the man was neither to be dismissed free, nor shut out of the camp, but shut up seven days. He was neither denied altogether his place, nor allowed to enjoy. Indifference there could not be: tenderness and watchfulness had each their place. If the disease seemed then at a stay, still this did not suffice, for this was not yet recovery. But if after seven days more the color of the skin was coming back, and there was manifestly no further progress, then the man was free, although even then new symptoms might call afterward for a new judgment.
A "wicked person" may be thus apparent from the nature of the case at once, or manifested after prolonged inquiry only. And here the signs are resolvable into this, that the case runs on without recovery, proving itself a deep internal state, impracticable to be reached. The man cannot be separated from the sin, but is identified with it, so that to separate from the sin you must separate from the man. This is now a wicked person.
Meanwhile, until this is determined, the man is shut up, not out. If it were a case of drunkenness, for instance, the man might be one overtaken in a fault, whom all just judgment would refuse to confound with a drunkard. But indifference is neither love nor holiness, and the sin has been committed, be its gravity what it may. Could one who has been drunk, perhaps yesterday, be allowed to come to the Lord's table today, as if nothing had happened? But it is supposed, You must either let him come, or put him away, — that there is no title to forbid his coming, except as excluding him: and thus have many been in fact excluded, and to us perhaps lost, whom grace would rather have recovered and held fast.
The man is shut up, not out. Communion at the table is not allowed to be disturbed by the shadow of unrepented sin; the Lord's honor is cared for, and the matter left to be dealt with with due consideration by all concerned. All this how different from crude and hasty action! Is it not so, that oftentimes our dealing is with evil, while divine dealing, though it be for evil, is with souls?
Beyond this necessary refusal of wicked persons there is surely no Scripture-warrant for the narrowing of Christian fellowship. Beyond this, it would be sectarian, and not holiness at all. All disciplinary dealing is based upon the spiritual state, or at least implies it as much where doctrinal evil, or association with it, is concerned as where it is simply moral.
For less aggravated conditions, the Word enjoins other treatment (public rebuke, or personal withdrawal short of cutting off. The tendency has been, more and more, I fear, to suppose that if a matter comes to the assembly, it means cutting off, and thus these lesser things are either visited with an undue severity, which defeats by this the very end of discipline, or else are passed over altogether.
It is plain that there were "divisions" and "heresies" in Corinth, for which the apostle never for a moment enjoins excision. "I hear that there are divisions among you, and I partly believe it; for there must also be heresies [or parties] among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you" (1 Cor. 11:18, 19). He meets these always with rebuke, never proposes division as a remedy for division. Strange remedy it would be! and is; for have we not adopted it? and how has it succeeded? Alas! have we not worked them into shameful, incurable breaches, which belie the testimony of our creed?
But let us now transfer these principles to the larger sphere; and first of all as to assemblies when they fail, it should be plain that we have no other principles to guide us in regard to them than in regard to individuals. Assemblies are but gatherings of individuals, whether many or few; and holiness has no other requirements in this case than in that. It is stable, not variable or uncertain. Were God's principles arbitrary, they might differ in corresponding cases, but being founded upon His own necessary character, they must be as unchangable as He is. It is not therefore, a doubtful inference, but a clear and necessary truth, that — supposing assemblies that are, to begin with, on divine ground as such — we cannot refuse them except because of their identifying themselves with wickedness; and then we must refuse all who are intelligently with them, although individuals who are not intelligent, if godly, may still be received.
[Plymouth-Bethesda? This needs clarification. LH]
We may, as already shown, be compelled to believe that they had not the Lord's mind in some particular matter, without at all denying their assembly-place.
Otherwise, we should have either to deny that an assembly truly gathered could give a wrong judgment, or maintain that for every such failure it was given up as such by the Lord. Neither of these things is it possible to show from Scripture, nor to make them probable deductions from any of the divine ways known to us.
But supposing it be believed that a wrong judgment has been arrived at, what is the course to be pursued? The assembly has at any rate pronounced, and pronounced for the whole body; for the body is one. For itself only it cannot speak: this would be at once independency. There would be no binding on earth, but binding in the town or village, or whatever it might be in question. And on the same principle, twenty different decisions might be come to in as many places. But "God is not the author of confusion," and this confusion could not be of Him.
But if a wrong judgment has indeed been given, or there be serious reason to fear it has, it is clearly a matter to exercise every conscience. Appeal become not a right so much as a responsibility, — a simple matter of duty to the Lord and to one's brethren, to be taken up solemnly, not hastily, without fear of man, because in the fear of God.
Private appeal should of course precede public; appeal to the assembly go before appeal against it. These are evident principles of the Word; as it is surely, in what never concerns themselves alone, but all consciences with theirs, the duty of the assembly acting to be prepared to furnish, when called upon, a distinct statement of the judgment given, and the grounds of it. What was needed to convince, and has convinced, the consciences of the assembly itself ought to be, when duly appealed to, put forth in brief to satisfy the consciences of the saints in a wider sphere.
We have seen judgments of questions, agitating already the souls of hundreds, given in such a manner as that it did not appear either what the sin was they were judging, nor the proof of it. Now of course if the authority of the assembly was to decide all, then it was only needful to say, Thus and thus have we decided; but if consciences are before God, can they be thus satisfied? and if not, what is there here to clear them at all?
To leave the statement of these things to persons outside is surely wrong, and has been the cause of great confusion. As it is the assembly alone that is warranted to decide, so it is its judgment, and the grounds of it, that need to be declared, and not those of other parties. If we are left to grope for facts and witnesses, or to sift the contradictory assertions of volunteer advocates, is it any wonder if there should be wide-spread confusion, and instead of consciences acting, the clinging, in the dark, to those personally most trusted, to carry one through?
But now if appeal to the assembly has been made, and failed, there remains nothing but appeal against it. To whom now is this appeal? We have seen that to a local assembly it cannot be, but to that which the local assembly represents — the assembly at large.
I desire to insist a little more, however, upon the practical consequences of the local assembly, or assemblies taking up the matter at this juncture. As already said, one assembly has no jurisdiction over another, — is not to be preferred above another. As a matter of fact, indeed, one assembly may have the confidence of their brethren much more than another; but this, if followed out, would end in mere human leadership, and a metropolitan position of certain gatherings: in fact, it has led to this. It would be the Lord in the midst in —, not wherever two or three are gathered to His name. And it would be no better scripturally to affirm the judgment of any number of gatherings; the principle of a majority is not of God. What is left to us, then? What would be here the really consistent endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit? Would it not be, instead of differing judgments being given here and there, and so party-spirit aroused and the standard of division raised, to wait upon God and upon one another until practical unanimity was attained?
Nor for this would it be necessary to carry a question of this kind throughout the world, or even through any very large section of it. If only such a portion of the country were united as could be taken as a fair representation of the rest, it would show sufficiently the work of the Spirit of God to win the confidence of the saints at large, and be accepted by them. It would be a very different thing from a majority, which shows only, at the best, divided sentiments. It would be unity, — the unity we are taught to seek.
The judgment would at last be given by a local assembly rightly enough; but how differently from being given as a note of variance merely, even if it were variance from the original judgment! And if it were variance, how confidently could one look for God to give submission on the part of all to that which was of Him!
That this would be the unity of the Spirit is evident. It may be objected, It would not be easily obtained. There is no need to assert that it would be. Here, as in the case of the single assembly, it would be found that the exercise of consciences, the felt need of being cast on God, the review of divine principles necessitated, would all work for blessing in the meantime. And if the honest and prayerful desire were after unity as well as righteousness, who will doubt that God in His grace would give it us, when the purpose of this exercise was attained? The forcing of consciences is not of God.
The enforcing of spiritual unity by legal threats and expulsion of those that differ is a thing impossible. The most exercised are just those who are likely to be least tractable under this kind of discipline. And how any one that weighs at all the sweet and gracious words of the apostle, so insisted on "With all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace," can suppose that it is to be accomplished by cutting off every one who cannot with a good conscience toward God accept the judgment of an assembly as to a local trouble, it is more and more difficult, I confess, for me to understand. These words are a direct exhortation to maintain every divine link that can be maintained, in the face of whatever difficulty, opposition, distress. And the words that follow — "there is one body, and one Spirit," do they not seem as if they were sentries upon their post, to forbid the thought of any reckless dividing the members of that body, the body of Christ?
Suppose even (what, it is true should never have been so hastily rushed into, ) one assembly-judgment set against another, as we have seen done: is unity worse expressed in contradictory judgments, or in hostile meetings? Is the remedy for a spirit of division in division thoroughly carried out? Are we as individuals to be governed by the spirit of the gospel — to forbear, and have long patience; and are we as assemblies to act in a very different spirit? Again, I ask, does Scripture press division as a remedy for division? The answer can be but one: assuredly it does not, but only rebukes it and refuses it.
Granted it is an anomaly, if some who are received at one gathering are rejected at another: is it better to seek the remedy in waiting upon God, and owning before Him that for our sins He has humbled us, or in thorough-going separation enforced throughout the world? In how many cases would not He, if appealed to, come in to heal, if our rough surgery did not anticipate and prevent such healing! The result is, we are coming to be as much united by the things in which we differ from others as in any sect that can be named. We do not gather with Christ, but scatter with —; and all in the name of the unity of the Spirit!
The point to be considered when there are such divided judgments is, is there some real and plain evil, such as, according to the Word, requires action? If there is not that which in itself necessitates this, the fact of such a division alone does not, but on the contrary, to leave it to the Lord and the individual conscience is the proper course. And in any case where there is real room for doubt, or those really godly cannot decide, or decide in opposite ways, it should be manifest that the Lord should be waited on, to make plain what is doubtful, and no extreme step be taken till the case is clear.
When it can be seen that God has united all true hearts, and that opposition which remains is only that of faction, then the time is come for action; and if there may have been need of patience, yet how great would be the recompense in result!
I believe that these are divine principles, not human expediency, and that they will bear the test of the Word. Do they not mark out for us a plain path, in which, while the Lord and the Spirit are no less a necessity for us, we may be at least free from the apprehension of being at any time forced, without adequate means of judgment, to take sides as to some fresh judgment of an assembly, sure only of this, that we should be broken up by it once more? And the assembly, if its authority be less absolute, will it not become at least more in our eyes that which the Lord loves, and for which He has given Himself? Nor will its judgments be less authoritative really when they reflect less of human will, and more of the Lord's righteousness.
F. W. Grant.