Religious Societies.

1890 11 There are two great subjects of interest to which any one taught of God must necessarily be awakened — the glory of God, and the necessities of man. In Jesus we perceive the most acute sensibility to the wretchedness of man: He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, — sighing, groaning, and weeping at the dominion of evil and misery over man. But whilst He met it in all the sovereign power of relief, He so met it that men should glorify God, and thus made the occasion of ministering to man's necessities, the occasion of bringing glory to God. In this as well as other particulars He has left us an example that we should follow His steps. We are apt to have a much quicker perception of the necessities of man than of the glory of God. It is the Spirit alone which can make us of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord, while our own natural selfishness enables us in some measure to enter into man's necessities. We see them as being ourselves in them, as those which personally affect us. Jesus saw them indeed, as in them, but yet with the judgment of One Who saw them from above. Hence it is, that whenever the church has been awakened to a sense either of the pressing necessities of the world around it, or of its own deficiencies, it has in the one case been busy in doing, rather than zealous to repent; and in the other, more ready to engage in some active exertions to mitigate or remedy the pressing necessity, by the means it found readiest at hand, than to ascertain what might be God's way of meeting it. The end proposed has alone been to remedy the destitution felt, or misery discovered; and if this end has in any wise been answered, by God's blessing vouchsafed, the church has been satisfied, and too often has rested in complacency in its own efforts, and made them the criterion of its prosperity, instead of finding the evidence of its failure, both in the necessity which called them forth, and in the dereliction of many important principles of truth which the exertion of those efforts has entailed.

It is impossible not to trace the origin of the many Religious Societies, which have arisen within the last hundred years, to an awakened sensibility about the spiritual destitution around us. Nor can we deny that it was the Spirit of God which put the desire into the hearts of the good and holy men from whom they originated. They were begun in faith and prayer, and little perhaps did any of their founders anticipate to what a magnitude they would grow. One can hardly now, except by history, trace the origin of the Bible Society to the concern of an obscure individual, in the principality of Wales, for the pressing want of the Scriptures in that part of the kingdom. The want when made known became a palpable object, and led to the discovery that many other places were equally destitute of the Scriptures. Many were the motives that induced to a co-operation in such an undertaking. But the object, though in itself confessedly good, was only to meet the necessity discovered. For this many were associated; but when the test of that very word was applied to them — to own God in their associate character, it was discovered not only that many would not, but that they could not; for there were those associated together who did not worship the same God. Notwithstanding the question raised on this point for a moment seemed to shake its stability, yet the Society still continues, because its immediate object is answered: translations of the Scriptures are multiplied, and Bibles are widely distributed.

That good is done is not denied, and that God works in the sovereignty of His grace by all means is most fully allowed. But the real question to be considered is, how far the children of the kingdom should rest satisfied with any religious society, with any society where moral influences are exerted upon the minds of men, unless it be simply based upon the principles which the apostles have developed, as those which are to regulate the association of the children of God. And how far will God be satisfied with anything short of this for the accomplishment of His end? This, while it includes man's blessing, is always His own glory. A society so constituted, would be the church in its varied work and labour of love. And is not this the deficiency, the necessary deficiency of all religious societies — that they fall short of what the church is, and therefore can never effect that which the church can only accomplish?

Whilst therefore the many societies which have arisen, based on more or less catholic principles, have evidenced an awakening desire among many christians for unity in service, have they not very much tended to blind the mind to the simple truth, that such a desire can only be answered by God's own plan — the church? Now the very differential character of a (so called) religious society, is, that it need not be a communion of saints. The end proposed does not necessarily require that it should be. It is in its very constitution an appeal to the world, and therefore must needs meet the world's principles. Now the world's judgment is never the judgment of faith. They expect results, and will not labour except when the object can be commended to their minds as plainly attainable and worthy. Hence it necessarily follows that, in addressing the world, success is to be looked for and proved, in order to establish the utility of the effort; and thus the great moral feature of the church's obedience — viz., to walk by faith, "to go out not knowing whither," when God's glory calls, is altogether lost, and expediency usurps the place of uncompromising obedience to the word of God. It is not therefore the defects in the constitution of any particular religious society, which render it questionable how a christian can rightly unite in its efforts. But the obstacle is this, that such societies are in themselves objectionable, because they are not the approved mode of God's agency, however we may rejoice in their objects. That they may succeed in part is possible and likely.

God is accustomed to compassionate our ignorance and to bless the endeavours of His people, so long as the light which He dispenses is faithfully obeyed; and He may have blessed these societies in removing many stumbling blocks which hindered the progress of the saints, and in leading them to a less exceptionable basis of co-operation than they had previously attained. Nevertheless, while they are societies formed on self-chosen principles, for the attainment of one particular end, and whilst they judge of their prosperity as that end is, or is not, obtained, they have not the character which the word of God requires; they fall short of that real union of brethren which is good and pleasant — good in the sight of God, and pleasant to the saints themselves. This may further be illustrated by facts. — The question raised as to prayer in the Bible Society, opened the eyes of many to perceive, that, whilst they were associated for a religious object, they were not pursuing it in a religious way. This led to a separation. And the same object was pursued by those who separated in a way of prayer, and of confessing to the name of Jesus, by requiring faith in the Trinity, as a necessary requisite to membership. The great difficulty generally understood to have been found by the pious individuals engaged in forming the new society, was the danger of forming a church. That the effort of forming a society on really Scriptural grounds had this tendency, was made very apparent by the fact of some of its first able and zealous promoters drawing back when they perceived whereunto it would grow, and that they were in that instance really acting on a principle which condemned themselves.

The very same principle contended for, separation from heretics, and godly co-operation as needful for the pursuance of an end where God's glory was concerned, was ably turned against the promoters of the new society by the advocates of the old. We cannot but mark the hand of God in this, in making the effort instrumental in opening the minds of many to a more just apprehension of the fellowship of the saints, both in worship and service. But the fears of the founders of the society were groundless. There was one hindrance to approximation too closely to a church form; and this was, that there was something besides the possession of the one spirit necessary to membership — money. The subscriber of a certain sum fixed as minimum, if he would confess to the Trinity, was registered as a member; and thus whilst a barrier was raised against the free admission of every saint who might desire to co-operate, but could not by reason of his inability to pay the required sum, the door was sufficiently widened to admit the worldly professor, or even the profane.

Allowing the zeal and piety of the managers of this society, it may be asked, have they not reversed the order of their most blessed motto, and given to beneficence towards man the priority over God's glory? and if we waive the objection as to the non-exclusion of the worldly or profane, and suppose that they can meet as those who in sincerity worship and serve the Lord, there is yet one very simple way in which it may be shown, that this society (for the institution of which we may be thankful) does still stop short of the one great principle of union. The society meets, its scriptural character is set forth, its principle is extolled for its catholicity. The souls, it may be, of many are refreshed by the fervour and spirituality of those who address them; but if the question were put, Can those who seem so united meet together in the Lord's appointed ordinance of fellowship — the Lord's supper, the answer is, No! For the object of man's necessities primarily, and God's glory indeed remotely, they can unite, but for God's glory in His own appointed way they cannot; and why? Because they are a society, whose end is answered stopping short of this; but where God's own glory is concerned — that is, in the oneness of His children, where His own appointed way is proposed, immediately difficulties arise, and a sectarian spirit is still manifested, and the lauded catholicity is found to be ill-grounded. (To be continued.)

1890 25 From this brief statement it is hoped that the question may be raised in the minds of some, not whether a society be properly constituted and properly managed, but whether it is God's own means of acting; and to help to form a judgment there are some few considerations to be added. Only let it be again repeated, that in anything said here it is not intended to deny that God has blessed and owned them. But since their principle is unchangeable, if this is faulty, we are not to set down that to the society* which is only ascribable to the sovereignty of God's grace, using any means according to the good pleasure of His will.

[*This is true as applied to the many parties into which the church has split. Surely God has blessed them all, but this is no approval of their sectarian constitution.]

And first, these societies have doubtless been very useful to the church in setting before it those works on which it ought to be engaged, and in stirring up much individual energy. But this has been greatly counterbalanced by the use which has been made of them, as if they had arisen from a healthy state of the church, instead of owing their existence entirely to its failure in its own bounden duty. The existence of so many societies for religious purposes has been hastily and unwarrantably assumed to be a ground for congratulation; whereas the object of them all would have been attained by the healthful state of the church in itself, in holy separation from the world, through the energy of the indwelling Spirit dispensing the streams of life. Men have united and concentrated their power for some present temporal object; and christians have followed their wisdom, and have almost practically forgotten that, although worldly objects of pursuit may be obtained by worldly association, yet is there one thing, without which christian service can never be fully, or other than partially effective, and this is the power of the Holy Ghost.

It is very much to be feared that an active and busy zeal, stirred up by the means of societies, has helped on very fearfully the error of the church in rejecting virtually its present portion, the guidance and power of the Holy Ghost. "Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit saith the Lord." It is the necessary consequence, when we are looking to our own multiplied means, to say we are rich and increased in goods, and have need of nothing; and not to know that we are poor, and blind, and miserable, and naked. It is an important consideration, exemplified in the conduct of the Jews during our Lord's ministry, that there may be mach bustle and activity even apparently about the things of the Lord, and yet lukewarmness in reference to the Lord Himself, and rapid progress toward the consummation of apostacy.

Connected with this is another evil, which is, that the society instead of a means soon becomes an end. It is its prosperity that is looked to. The end of its agency and ramifications is, that the society may flourish. Now if a society be not God's way of advancing His own glory, however excellent it may be for the end it proposes, the moment that it becomes the object to sustain and to support, an opening is made for the flesh in all its rivalry and self-seeking. Besides, the maintenance of the society, being almost unconsciously the object of its agency, must lead to a certain kind of worldly prudence which would conceal its miscarriages, and only put forth its success. For example, we read of one case it may be of deep interest, and are and ought to be thankful for it; yet that one case is stated in an isolated manner, and we have not before us at all a fair statement of the proceedings of the society. Now in the church, if it flourishes, it becomes what God set it to be, His witness in a dark world. It does not flourish from any power extrinsic to itself, or from any adventitious circumstances, but from the energy of the Spirit working mightily in it; and it is impossible to seek the prosperity of the church, without seeking the glory of God. And the blessing of the church is, that its resources are from within: if it goes without itself to the world for aid, it virtually forgets that God is its strength; and the practical result of this seeking after outward resources has been to exclude the help of God.

Again it may be said, that religious societies have been the means of calling into activity much energy, which would otherwise have remained dormant. And this is doubtless true; and we have seen not only the acknowledgment of lay co-operation, but likewise the strange inconsistency of lay management* in societies, which would hesitate about the propriety of employing an unordained missionary. But however this may have tended to disabuse some minds of the prejudice that every thing of a religious nature was to be done through a clergy, it has been one of the evils arising from the management of a society, that it has greatly tended to lower the value of church order. In the church, those who rule and have the control of things affecting the well-being of the church are not elected or supplanted by others who may be chosen to succeed them. In a communion of saints, there may be one only with the gift of rule, or there may be several; but if they have grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ, they cannot be superseded by others having even the like gift in a greater measure. There would be room for the different exercise of all the gifts; and thankfully should they be received. The disposition of these things is in the hands of the Lord; but is this recognised in the constitution of any society?

[*The word Lay is used here, not as allowing the propriety of the distinction between Clergy and Laity, which is not recognised in the New Testament, but only as to the fact.]

The entire management of religious societies is left to the control of a Committee, or a board of directors. Now a Committee, or directory, is that which has suggested itself to worldly prudence, as the readiest and easiest way of furthering its own plans. Christians have therefore in this instance borrowed from the world. They have not the power to delegate the government of themselves, in the things in which they are engaged, if indeed they be the things of God, to those in whom they may choose to confide. True it is indeed, that according to apostolic rule and practice, where money was concerned, it was left to the people to select those gifted of God as competent for the service (see Acts vi., 1 Cor. xvi. 3, 4, 2 Cor. viii. 19, 20). But the Committee of a religious society is entrusted with far more than a faithful application of its funds. Looking at religious societies, either as Bible or Missionary societies, the committee have the control of translations in the one, a most important work indeed, and of the missionaries in the other, which is equally important. Now these functions are the very highest in the church, and yet they are formally delegated from year to year to a nominated committee. Surely such a proceeding at once shows, that they are not recognised as so placed of God; for if they were, there needed not the renewal of their commission. And then to whom do the Committee so constituted stand in immediate responsibility? If they held any church place, their responsibility would at once be to the source from whence their power was derived — that is, the great Head of the church Himself. But however fitted and gifted, even by Him, a number of individuals forming a committee might be for the execution of so important a trust, yet being dependent on annual choice for their existence, the sense of direct responsibility to Him is much deadened; and, what is of importance too, it tends to induce forgetfulness of individual responsibility, "as every man hath received the gift, so minister the same, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God."

It is a serious consideration for Christians to weigh well the question, whether either in appointing a committee or being appointed to it, they are not indirectly interfering with the Headship of the Lord. For what office recognised of Him does a committee hold? what gifts given by Him does it pretend to? In fact the constitution of societies has necessarily given rise to very lax* notions on the point of church government, as if it were a matter left either to our tastes, or will, or convenience. And it may be soberly said, that the powers which a committee pretends to exercise are unheard of in the church, such as the college of apostles never thought of asserting, — viz., so completely controlling the agency it employs, as effectually to hinder the liberty of the Spirit of God. If the Spirit should now as plainly forbid a missionary to preach the gospel in a given region, as Paul was forbidden to preach it in Asia, the Committee might still say, That is your sphere, there you must remain, till we tell you to move. And this is not hypothetical; a society constituted as religious societies are, seeks to carry into a heathen land the arrangements it has for religious instruction in its own country. A station is selected by the Committee — a missionary sent forth — a mission house and chapel built — a school established; but after years of labour the preaching has not been found to be owned of God. The missionary cannot shake off the dust of his feet and go where a door may have been opened of the Lord, because the society has now a property in the station; and it is no uncommon thing in India to see men of God tied down to a station by the assimilation of their labour to the model of an establishment, whose love of souls would lead them to declare the glad tidings to those who are perishing for lack of knowledge. And this hindrance to the liberty of the Spirit almost necessarily arises from the constitution of a religious society.

[*The high-church feeling of the late Mr. Vaughan, of Leicester, led him to relinquish his connection with the Church Missionary Society, as the secretary to the local association, because the society was not under church government: a right principle, though in a wrong place; and it illustrates the point.]

1890 34 The utter insubjection of the minds of Christians to real church authority in the Spirit has doubtless been materially helped on by the introduction of the worldly expedient of a committee into a society professedly religious. Nor does the evil end here. We find among the agents of the several societies many able and gifted individuals; but in their place as agents or secretaries of societies, what are they as given of the Lord? Are they apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, or evangelists? Surely not — they hold no church office at all. It is no office given of the Lord or owned of Him. Nothing surely but being misled by the desire of doing good could possibly have induced so many men of piety to put themselves in so anomalous a position. It need hardly be added, that the constant habit of appealing to a worldly auditory leads them for the most part into very low and meagre statements of truth; and some have not thought it beneath them to amuse their hearers, instead of simply stating what God has wrought. The mischief arising from this entire disregard of church office and church order,* through the setting aside of both by societies, is incalculable.

[*The substitution of an order in the flesh for office in the Spirit, and attempted uniformity for order in the Spirit, has been the sin of Popery, and of the Establishment in this country — a sin surely of which many are unconscious; and yet, startling as it may be to some, affecting the question of the headship of Christ to the church, and of the presence of the Holy Ghost in the church.]

But then it may be said what are the saints to do? Now the object of this paper is rather to awaken enquiry as to the wrongness of their present means, that they may seek to ascertain the way of the Lord more perfectly, than to say, Here is a perfect plan into which you may at once come. There is a perfect plan, God's own plan — His own society — the church; but who can say we have attained unto it? And that which is specially intended to be pressed on the minds of God's children is, that the very existence of the societies in question is a proof of the fallen and low state of the church, and calling for humiliation and sorrow, rather than congratulation. The word surely is, "Be zealous and repent."

There is one simple way however of proceeding, and that is, immediately, without regard to consequence, to leave off doing evil. Let the children of God separate from the unholy and disobedient, and conform their plans, not to the judgment of man, but to the mind of Christ. But further, the church has been shown its deficiencies and lack of service, and bounden duty. Let it importunately seek of the Lord of the harvest to send forth missionaries both at home and abroad, men of faith and prayer, and simply dependent on the Holy Spirit, without the expensive machinery of a society taking upon itself to send them. If there are such to be found — those whose desire it is, constrained by the love of Christ, to go forth to the heathen, taking nothing of them; assuredly the children of God will be ready to help them on their way after a godly sort, that they may be fellow-workers to the truth* (2 John 6-8). But let them not go forth thus provided only, but likewise in the fullest sympathy of the church, and strengthened with all the counsel and wisdom, that the Lord may have given to it in any of His servants, so that they might feel assured that in their difficulties they were not alone. Thus would they be made to feel their entire dependence on God, and at the same time perfect liberty of giving themselves up to the guidance of His Spirit, whilst the knowledge of a loving and watchful oversight on the part of others would alike tend to check the hastiness, or stir up the sluggishness, of the flesh. And so also as to Bibles: — have Christians done well in letting the sacred deposit committed to them out of their hands? Are translations of the scriptures to be entrusted to the superintendence of those who do not stand as acknowledged to have received those gifts by which the church is edified? Persons are often placed in this position of most solemn responsibility from their rank, influence, wealth, or learning, none of which renders a man competent to judge of a version of the Scriptures. All that are spiritual do know how that the exercise of the mere cultivated human understanding is disposed to draw inferences from the word of God which that word itself forbids. The church is the pillar and ground of the truth; even as Jesus is the truth itself, and the Spirit alone can guide into all truth. It is sorrowfully known from the agitation of the question, how little the real inspiration of the Scriptures is held by men of decided piety, and how soon and how easily such a principle would lead men to be content with a paraphrase instead of a translation.

[*Help may indeed be received from anyone who chooses to proffer it, but none is to be solicited from the world.]

Let not however the mischiefs arising from the constitution of societies be used as a cloke for slothfulness, — hindering the saints from undertaking in God's own way the work they have engaged in. The foolishness of God is wiser than man. Let it therefore be shown that, with much less of palpable display, the work is more effectually done, when only undertaken in the Spirit and for God's glory, than when undertaken with the most promising human means for an end, however good, short of it.

Again let it be repeated that, in nothing that has been said, is there the intention of speaking to the disparagement of any religious society. The aim of this paper is to show merely that it is not God's way of proceeding. Let us most thankfully own, that their objects are of very deep importance, and rejoice in the measure of good they have effected. Let us again also see in them how gracious God is, in bearing with the experiments of our own wisdom, and in leading us by His gentleness, through our own failures, to the knowledge of His truth and of His ways. J. L. Harris.