When Thy Son Asketh Thee
J. H. Large
READERS ARE REMINDED that in this series we are discussing the responsibility of elders to give guidance to young people when widening experience brings them into contact with other Christian communities whose constitutions are not in accord with the principles these young people have been taught in their home assemblies.
No earnest Christian can be indifferent to the appalling need all around us or be other than distressed at the divisions among Christians, and young believers must be helped to reach an intelligent conclusion as to the right course to follow in the present confusion.
APPEALS FOR UNITY
True unity is desirable but it is vitally important to understand clearly what is meant by true unity.
It is not mere amalgamation - an amalgamation of diverse elements only makes confusion worse confounded. Real unity comes only from a common life and can find expression only so long as it leads to united action on a common basis consistent with that life. It is stating the obvious to say that the obstacle to such unity is sectarianism and here it is necessary to remember that if we consider ourselves to be outside sects, it is nevertheless possible to be influenced by a sectarian spirit. Loyalty to a cause comes easier to most of us than loyalty to Christ. But for the moment let us put aside sectarian issues and approach the question of unity on a personal basis.
Those who advocate some form of combined witness often quote the prayer of our Lord, 'That they all may be one', John 17. 21, but surely He did not have in mind an organized federation. Those who wish to see in this prayer a desire for a visible organized union must solve two difficulties -first, that in that case a prayer of Christ has remained unanswered for 1,900 years; and, second, that the time when the professing church came nearest to being a world wide union was the darkest in her history.
Is it not clear that the Lord had in mind the manifestation among believers that they were one in spirit, 'As thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us'. This has been accomplished on the God ward side. '. . .ye are all one in Christ Jesus', Gal. 3. 28. The Lord has indicated clearly how we are to give proof to the world, 'By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another', John 13. 35.
This is a day of mass movements and Christians sometimes get mesmerized by colossal campaigns. Without any wish to deny that God has sometimes been pleased to bless gigantic undertakings, and whilst willing to acknowledge that the faith and zeal displayed are a rebuke to apathy, we think it will be agreed that by far the greater part of God's work in the world is done by unassuming and unspectacular methods. God's principle is steady growth. If every Christian were concerned to cultivate genuine personal fellowship with other believers for mutual help, and personal contacts with the unconverted to win them to Christ, we believe the over-all result would be incalculable. If, instead of struggling to bring about some uneasy kind of cohesion between discordant elements, we were glad to recognize the unity of the spirit as between believer and believer and seek to foster it, we would be on the right lines.
HINDRANCES TO PERSONAL FELLOWSHIP
Realism compels us to admit that unhappily it may not prove so simple as it sounds. A willingness to foster fellowship with godly individuals docs not always meet with a very ready response. Why is this? It is best, first of all, to ask ourselves if the fault is ours. If we give the impression of condescension, as though we feel we are making a concession, we must not be surprised if we encounter coolness. It is important to recognize that we have much we can learn from others, and if we hope to impart to them what we enjoy, we must be willing to appreciate what they enjoy of the Lord. But it is to be feared that another factor enters into it - the feeling that cultivation of such fellowship involves some disloyalty to their own community. But what if we succeed? Then it will not be long before difficulties arise. As fellowship progresses and ties become closer, it is almost inevitable that the question of service for the Lord together arises. Many young people taken away from home and plunged into strange surroundings in college or in the Services have, of course, found that happy fellowship can be enjoyed in service with Christians whose background is different. The interesting thing is that this has been made possible because denominationalism was, for the time being, abandoned. This experience raised hopes that the way to unity had been discovered, but too often it was found that on return to normal conditions denominationalism won the day.
When there is willingness to yield obedience to Scripture further progress is possible, but if there is a determination to cling to an unscriptural position then an impasse is reached. We are up against the bugbear of sectarianism after all, and although we put it aside at the commencement of this article, the issue has to be faced.
CAN WE SINK DIFFERENCES?
Recognizing the impasse some are inclined to by-pass it by the policy of sinking differences and marching together at almost any cost. We believe that quite a few who have tried this have become disillusioned. What are we asked to sink? To yield gracefully on matters which rest simply on personal preferences or established customs would be a small price to pay for genuine fellowship. After all, assemblies with their own particular tradition and even with decided opinions on the matters in question have found it possible to work harmoniously with other assemblies whose views are quite different, because there is nevertheless complete agreement on essentials. But what if we are asked on the one hand to condone unscriptural teachings and practices and on the other hand to suppress scriptural teachings and practices? If this is the price of such unity as is offered, the price is too high and the article is not genuine. It becomes apparent that the problem is deep-seated.
THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM
When electric fuses blow and lights fail it is idle to rush about replacing fuses whilst the cause of the failure remains unremedied; the lights will hardly have a chance to glow before the fuses blow again. The trouble has to be traced to its source and put right before fresh fuses will do any good.
Likewise, when attempts to keep the light of unity shining break down under the pressure of improper demands on our conscience, it is futile to keep on trying to patch things up. The situation will repeat itself - permanent success is impossible while the underlying cause of division persists.
Will any deny that the real cause of the present distressing confusion in the professing Church is departure from the Word of God? In saying this we hasten to add that it must not be complacently assumed that the departure has been all on one side. Whilst we may be sincerely desirous of conforming to God's will, no attentive student of the divine ideal as revealed in the New Testament will be deceived into imagining that we have attained to the scriptural pattern in its entirety. We have much to strive after. Moreover, we do not confine our thoughts to 'church order' - we must include all of God's will for His people, whether as individuals or communities. God's ideal must be seen in relation to our personal lives before we can see 'church truth' in its proper perspective. It cannot be too strongly emphasized that to preen ourselves on the correctness of our church order whilst our personal lives are inconsistent with the stand we take is the surest way to destroy our influence. However, the point is that departure is the root cause and that being so it should be perfectly obvious that for us to depart from the Word of God still further cannot possibly serve the cause of unity. A return to the Word of God is clearly the solution, and so long as there is unwillingness among Christian communities to accept the one and only authoritative guide, so long will the problem remain insoluble.
THE CHIEF OBSTACLE
If it be asked - 'Wherein has the professing Church most seriously departed from the pattern?', we would say, 'In the matter of clerisy'. We believe this to be the core of the trouble, and to forestall any protest we remind our readers that it has been admitted by those striving for a world union of churches that the ordained ministry and what it involves is the chief obstacle to unity among Christians. If the reader will ponder the implications of clerisy and all that is tied up with it, he will see that it is the mainstay of sectarianism and the greatest single hindrance to unity. Clerisy is not only a denial of the Holy Spirit's sovereignty in the Church but it brings in its train unsound doctrines and unwarranted claims which serve to maintain the false system. In many instances ordained' men are not even born again and whereas their avowed duty is to build up the faith of God's people, they proceed to undermine it, displacing the simple truth of salvation by grace by soul destroying doctrines and displacing spiritual worship by ritualism. This state of affairs is so common and so long established that it needs reflection to appreciate the gravity of association with it.
We shall be told that there are many godly ministers and we gladly admit it. They themselves arc prepared to admit the wrong of all this and seek to justify their position in various ways. We confess we do not follow their reasoning but we remember that each servant stands or falls to his own master, and we have no desire to expose ourselves to the Lord's rebuke by presuming to pass judgment on individuals who, like us, have to give account to Him alone. We rejoice to find devotion to Christ, but we are not deceived by those who under the plea of Christian charity enjoy the luxury of genially embracing all and sundry and treat as bores those who prefer to eschew clerisy and all its ways. We have no doubt what the apostle Paul would have to say about it because we have recorded for us his strictures of those who adulterated the Gospel. His singleness of heart and utter devotion to Christ entitled him to speak, but we must remember that Paul would likewise have some unflattering things to say about us! But we must get back to the point.
RETURN-THE ONLY WAY
If the cause of disunity is departure from the Word of God (and who will deny it?) then the only thing which will restore it is to return in heart to God's ways, but as far as we can see, amid much talk of unity there is no sign of any willingness to scrap the pretentious ecclesiastical systems which men have built up and get back to the simple foundation. The result is that such efforts, to take an extreme case, as the World Council of Churches (though its professions may deceive many), is travelling in a direction which will take its followers farther than ever from God's way. This should make us distrustful of any scheme of unity which rules out the one essential - return to God's Word.
IS RETURN LIKELY?
If Christians were prepared to renounce, not only clerisy as a system, but the spirit of clerisy (which can lurk in un¬suspected places), remaining problems would yield to grace and patience. The reader must judge for himself what is the likelihood of this, but it is undeniable that if communities from their different positions would, instead of trying to accommodate themselves to each other, all converge on the scriptural ideal, they would, as an inevitable consequence, draw closer to each other but the religious climate is such that this sole solution is unacceptable.
What then are we to do? Some would say, if not in so many words, 'The need is great. The time is short. The ideal is unattainable. Bow to the inevitable and make the best of a bad job'. But there is an element of panic in this and we do not get the impression from the Scriptures that God favours panic measures. We believe it would be more honouring to God to say, 'We are convinced His way is the only way and we are going to put our confidence in obeying His Word'. Certainly our strength is small and seen against the background of imposing ecclesiastical systems our witness might appear feeble to the eye of sense, but we remember that He whose eyes arc as a flame of fire said to the Philadelphians, 'I know thy works: behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it: for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name', Rev. 3. 8.
It is fair to ask, 'What exactly then do you propose?'. In our next issue we will give the answer which our present remarks have probably led you to expect! J. H. L.
Reprints of A. T. Darch's recent article on Baptism may be obtained free, on application to C. H. Darch, Greenway, West Monkton, Taunton, Somerset.