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Saturday, August 06, 2016

Inbox: Measuring the Wind

WD writes, “How does the Spirit work in a person’s life and how can one know He is?” An excellent question.

It’s also a question I wouldn’t dare try to answer in a single blog post, even if I thought myself an expert on the Holy Spirit’s guidance, which I don’t. But our reader’s question has been lurking at the back of my mind as I’ve worked my way through William Trotter’s little pamphlet on worship and ministry in the Spirit.

As much as impressions may be powerful things, I remain cautious about attributing to the Holy Spirit anything that is merely subjective, mystical or personal.

When we talk about the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we must always remember we are in deeply sovereign territory:
“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
This is not to say that we can know nothing of the Spirit’s work, but that my feelings, though often influenced by the Holy Spirit, are poor judges of whether he is at work in me in any given situation. I like Trotter’s writings a great deal, but I find the more subjective aspects of his thinking a little questionable.

Let’s limit ourselves (for now, at least) to the subject of public participation in the gathering of a local church under the Spirit’s guidance. Here’s the sort of thing I mean. From Trotter’s Letter 1:
“That the Holy Ghost is present, means more than that the meeting is not to be ordered by human and previous arrangement. He must order it if He be present. It means more than that any one is at liberty to take part in it. Nay, it means the opposite of this. True, there must be no human restrictions: but if He be present, no one must take any part but that which He assigns, and for which He qualifies him.” [emphasis mine]
Let’s think about that a bit.

Spiritual Qualifications

The second part of Trotter’s last assertion, “and for which He qualifies him”, is a little less open to interpretation than the first part.

We find a variety of opinions in local churches about what constitutes a qualification for publicly participating in leading the people of God. At the more restrictive end of the spectrum are the requirements of ordination or a religious doctorate. At the more liberal end, even unbelievers are occasionally permitted to address the congregation. Most churches are somewhere in between these extremes, and those about which it may be said that the guidance of the Holy Spirit is (at least occasionally) operative within them must attempt some coherent and biblical standard.

Public Worship and Praise

For leading vocally in worship, praise and prayer, my understanding is that one must be a man and, further, be indwelt by the Spirit of God (absent which it is patently ridiculous to speak of his “guidance” at all). Other than occasional, self-imposed restrictions that one may choose to apply from time to time as personal circumstances demand, I hesitate to expand these qualifications much further.

Trotter seems to concur. From his third letter:
“The only priesthood besides [the priesthood of Jesus Christ] which exists at present is that which all saints share, and which all share alike. I could not suppose, therefore, that in an assembly of Christians the giving out of hymns, and prayer, thanksgiving, and praise (the expression of these I mean), should be confined, to those who are qualified of God to teach, or to exhort, or to preach the gospel.”
Until we can find even a hint of clerisy in the pages of the New Testament (as opposed to the post-NT history of the Church), I think Trotter’s point must stand.

Public Ministry

That said, public ministry is a different kettle of fish. I believe (as Trotter did) that recognized spiritual gift is a prerequisite to regular vocal participation (since it is impossible for the spirits of gifted men to be subject to other gifted men if we cannot first identify who the gifted men are).

As Trotter puts it:
“God never designed all saints to take part in the public ministry of the word, or in conducting the worship of the assembly … I would refer you, first, to 1 Corinthians 12:29-30. ‘Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles? have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret?’ There would be no meaning in these questions if the fact had not been self-evident, that such places in the body were filled by but a few.”
In any case, my point is that, rightly or wrongly, most local churches have some sort of metric by which they qualify those who may participate. It is not a completely random exercise.

Spiritual Assignment

But Trotter’s first assertion seems a little dodgier. What does “No one must take any part but that which He assigns” mean exactly?

Trotter expands on his idea:
“What one does desire is, that the presence of the Holy Ghost Himself should be so realized as that no one should break silence except by His power, and under His direction; and that the sense of His presence should thus restrain us from all that is unworthy of Him, and of the name of Jesus in which we meet.”
As an aspiration, I like it. As a useful metric of the Spirit’s guidance, I find myself a bit flummoxed. A “sense of His presence” is by definition a feeling, a subjective impression or a mystical experience of some sort, is it not?

I may feel very intensely that the Spirit is leading me. Others may feel equally intensely that he is not.

How do you measure that?

Solemn Conviction and Full Persuasion

The problem of subjectivity raises itself again in Trotter’s fourth letter:
“Suppose we were questioned at any time after the close of a meeting, Why did you give out such a hymn, or read such a chapter, or offer such a prayer, or speak such a word? Could we with a clear, good conscience reply, My only reason for doing so was the solemn conviction that it was my Master’s will? Could we say, I gave out that hymn because I was fully persuaded that it was the mind of the Spirit, that at that juncture in the meeting it should be sung? I read that chapter, or spoke that word, because I felt clear before God that it was the service my Lord and Master assigned me? I offered that prayer because I knew that the Spirit of God led me as the mouth of the assembly to ask those blessings which in it were implored. My brethren, could we answer thus, or is there not often the taking this part or that, without any such sense of responsibility to Christ?” [emphasis mine]
You see the problem, right? Solemn conviction, full persuasion, clear feeling and personal knowledge are all matters of opinion. It is good for us to have them, but there are some matters about which this is impossible.

What Can We Be Sure Of?

I can be solemnly convicted that as a man I have an obligation to speak to God from time to time on behalf of my fellow believers. The word of God assures me of that, so I’m never in doubt of it. I can be fully persuaded that those with public speaking gifts should use them to minister to the Body of Christ because the word of God assures me of it. If I ever doubt it, I can flip open the pages of my New Testament and read it. I count myself among this group of gifted teachers because many different Christians in many different places over many years have assured me I am “apt to teach”. This is a little more subjective than the first two truths, perhaps, but still something in which I have confidence because it is measurable: I recall the occasions on which this sort of encouragement came my way and the godly believers who were the source of it, and even some of the words in which it came.

But beyond these quasi-measurables, where are we? How do I know that a specific prayer at a specific time about a specific subject was my Master’s will other than that I fancy it was the case — or hope it was?

I don’t. I can’t. I’m not even sure we can be expected to know such things.

Godly Suspension of Judgment

Surely the apostle anticipates such concerns. Otherwise, why does he tell the Corinthians, “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent”?

But why should I be silenced when I am bound by “solemn conviction” and “fully persuaded” of the Spirit’s guidance? That other guy standing up to cut me off has got to be wrong, hasn’t he? The Spirit is not disorderly; Paul is clear about that.

Certainty is a lovely thing. It makes things so much simpler. And we may have great certainty about many of the things we do before God in the presence of our fellow believers. But we can never claim greater certainty than the word of God specifically provides us. There is a time for what we might call “godly suspension of judgment”.

That is to say, I HOPE I’m expressing the right truth at the right moment, and that the Holy Spirit guided me to do so. But I must always recognize that I may be wrong about that. I may just be beating my favourite doctrinal hobby horse for the umpteenth time. I may be sincere but incorrect in my interpretation of scripture. So provision is made for my fellow believers to get up and question or amend what I just said, or even to take the meeting in a different direction.

If I insist on the primacy of my feelings about my ministry or worship, I may end up forcing my own will on my brothers and sisters in Christ for no reason more compelling than my own preferences or ego.

My feelings cannot become the judge of whether the Holy Spirit is at work in me. They just can’t.

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