Thursday, July 21, 2016

Golden Calves and Sacred Cows

Just another divine bovine ...
Anyone who has carefully read the New Testament through more than once will concede that most modern evangelical church meetings bear little resemblance to the gatherings described in the letters of the apostle Paul.

That alone doesn’t necessarily make today’s churches “wrong”: both local autonomy and format flexibility are built into the New Testament church. Thus some of today’s churches may be most accurately described in the words of a local city building inspector who referred to a nearby triplex as “legal non-conforming”.

Other churches — for a variety of reasons related to the anti-scriptural clergy/laity divide, obsession with liturgical forms, denominational rules or the tolerance of dominant personalities — are very far off the mark indeed insofar as church order is concerned, though they may be full of godly, gifted individual believers. Those who favor such meeting arrangements rather than merely suffering through them are unlikely to find the following discussion helpful.

Decently and In Order

As I have previously noted here and here, 1 Corinthians 14 sets out principles under which any local church may make use of the gifts given its members by the Spirit of God in an orderly and Christ-honouring way. While it is as close to a “template” for a church meeting as we have in the New Testament, it has been almost uniformly neglected or rejected as authoritative throughout Church history, at least in the Western world.

Those of us who would love to see the Corinthians model tried more frequently in modern churches will find William Trotter’s Five Letters on Worship and Ministry in the Spirit of interest. Trotter was a former ordained minister who became an associate of the Plymouth brethren in London, England in the mid-1800s.

Nothing New Under the Son

Quoting an anonymous writer from a decade earlier, Trotter makes it clear this deficiency of attention to the New Testament pattern among English churches is nothing new:
“Neither in the Church of England, nor in Dissent, do I find 1 Corinthians 14 acted upon.”
At the time, the group of Christians with which Trotter met were committed to the word of God as their sole authority for faith and practice, attempting to reexamine and reorder all aspects of the local church in accordance with New Testament instruction and example. Thus Trotter was able to appeal to a commonly agreed-upon authority in his five letters.

A Golden Calf in Place of the Living God

Trotter’s personal commitment to the 1 Corinthians 14 model (which we’ll call “open meetings” for ease of reference) is exceptional:
“I could no more have fellowship with any body of professing Christians who substitute clerisy in any of its forms for the sovereign guidance of the Holy Ghost, than as an Israelite I could have had fellowship with the setting up of a golden calf in the place of the living God.”
I tend to view platform ministry (whether by one man or many) as more sacred cow than golden calf, but let’s not split hairs.

Satisfaction and Dissatisfaction

Yet despite an unwavering commitment to principles of first century church order, Trotter and his friends found their exercise in greater obedience to the Head of the Church was not without its difficulties:
“When in July last we were led of the Lord, as I doubt not, to substitute open meetings for the Lord’s day evening gospel preachings, which had been sustained till then, I anticipated all which has since ensued.

You will believe me, that it is no joy to me in itself to find my brethren mutually dissatisfied with the part taken by each other in the meetings.”
The phrase “mutually dissatisfied with the part taken by each other” echoes a similar reaction I’ve encountered among the few Christians who attempt open meetings today. And yet Trotter also describes times when things went very well indeed:
“When silence was broken, it was with a prayer that embodied the desires, and expressed the breathings of all present; or a hymn in which all could with fulness of heart unite; or a word which came home to our hearts with power. And though several might be used in such hymns, and prayers, and ministrations, it was as evidently one Spirit who guided and arranged the whole, as though a plan of it had been made beforehand, and each one had had his part assigned. No human wisdom could have made such a plan. The harmony was divine. It was the Holy Ghost acting by the several members, in their several places, to express the worship or to meet the need of all present.

And why should it not be always thus?”
Indeed. Why not?

What Other Principles Do We Have?

Trotter goes on to ask the same question I’ve asked myself many times, except that Trotter asked it over 150 years ago:
“Questions have been raised as to 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, whether it be possible to act on the principles there laid down, in the acknowledged absence of so many of the gifts there enumerated. I have no such questions myself, and as to any who have, I should only ask them, What other principles have we in scripture whereon to act? And then, if there be no others, What authority have we to act on principles which are not found in scripture at all?”
Exactly. If Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians are the sum total of scriptural teaching as to order of service, objections that “We’ve tried it and it doesn’t work” or “Most churches do it this way” or “But there are some good men out there serving as pastors” are idle.

“What other principles have we?” Sacred cow or golden calf, our ongoing obsession with men on platforms has nothing more than tradition to commend it.

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(If you’re interested, Stem Publishing has online links to what appears to be nearly everything Trotter wrote in his mere 47 years.)

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