No one can form an adequate Idea of what a local church should be unless he Is prepared to view It from the many angles suggested In the New Testament and then try to form a composite picture. This article attempts nothing more ambitious than drawing attention to a neglected feature.
In this highly-mechanized age there is a tendency to sacrifice everything to the idol of efficiency—higher and higher production is the cry. When people live in this atmosphere clay by day it is not altogether surprising if this mentality, invading the spiritual realm, leads them to regard the. assembly as though it were little more than a spiritual workshop, where the amount of work accomplished is the sole test of its success. Activities must lie-organized, people must be regimented, the machinery must be kept revolving at high speed, and everything must run smoothly according to schedule. It might be well to pause and inquire whether all this activity is producing any commensurate spiritual result. No reader of these pages will suppose that we are opposed to things being done decently and in order; it is no credit to servants of Christ if they are more careful about business affairs than about the Lord's service. It would be foolish to frown on efficiency, but let us beware of the danger of looking upon believers simply as " hands " (or ought we now-a-days to say " operatives" ?) whose claim to consideration depends solely upon their ability to contribute to the ' effectiveness ' of the assembly. Certainly the assembly should be effective, but the above attitude breeds a spirit of impatience towards those who, for some reason or other, cannot throw their weight into whatever enterprise may be on hand at the moment. In industry this concentration on " results " to the ruthless exclusion of all else, came perilously near to robbing business of the little soul it once possessed, until it was realized that even the most amazing advances of technology could not eliminate the human factor. It is all very well to have industry highly organized and geared to all-out efficiency, but life is not so accommodating as machinery, and men and women cannot be treated as mere units. However exasperating hindrances may be to production-experts, human personalities do not appreciate being pressed into one mould, and the sheer march of events has compelled the recognition of an obligation to care for personnel. Welfare schemes are now regarded as indispensable auxiliaries and a great deal is done to help the worker to accommodate himself to his environment, with what success others must judge. Even so, people still have accidents or fall sick. Is industry the modern Amalakite who throws out the sick Egyptian to die ? No, there are hospitals to care for the injured and the ill, and in an age which tends to grow increasingly impersonal it is greatly to the credit of these admirable institutions that they succeed in retaining, to a surprising degree, the human touch.
Surely all this has an obvious lesson for those whose ideal assembly is comparable to a hive of busy bees, a community organized for the highest efficiency, with scant mercy for the drones. However well an assembly may be run, no matter what standard of ministry is maintained (and let us have the best, if by " best " is meant the most spiritual), the uncomfortable fact demands recognition that believers fall sick, they succumb to temptation, they become discouraged by trial and difficulty, take offence at slights (real or imagined), or perhaps fall victims to unsound teaching. Many have been bruised and crushed by experiences which we have been mercifully spared, and those who can be guilty of making efficiency the only criterion betray a complete absence of the spirit of their Master, who loved to heal the broken-hearted and give rest to the heavy-laden. Suitable spiritual ministry may perform the useful function of a clinic, but very often more is needed—the assembly needs to have a special Ward of Grace where souls can receive personal treatment as ' in-patients.'
Commentators have long likened the Inn in the parable of the Good Samaritan to the Church to whom Christ entrusts the care of those who have been robbed and battered by spiritual foes, and whom He has rescued from death. The innkeeper was not told to find the unfortunate man a job, but was given the wherewithal to look after him. If some object that this is not the point of the parable, it matters little for our present purpose because our application of the figure of a hospital to the assembly is amply justified in other parts of the New Testament. " Him that is weak in the faith receive ye " may not be very acceptable advice to those whose restricted ideas of the many-sided aspects of assembly life would prompt them to receive only those who are as strong as they imagine themselves to be and who promise to be an asset instead of a liability. This may be a sound enough policy for a factory, but a hospital takes the opposite line and caters for the sick and injured, fulfilling in the physical realm the exhortation given to the Romans—" We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak and not to please ourselves." It would be strange if a hospital imposed a test of health, or ability to work, as a condition of admission. We must be willing to accept the burden of caring for those who show no present prospect of being able to make any useful contribution to the service of the assembly, having always in mind the transformation grace can accomplish. So long as life remains, the hospital will receive a man in the hope of nursing him back to health, and what amazing success often crowns the skilled and patient efforts made on his behalf.
Because for the moment we are confining our thoughts to the hospital aspect of the assembly, we refrain from going into the question of ' reception ' in its broader sense— for example, " receiving the weak " does not imply the reception of those who hold erroneous doctrine, although even here we need to discriminate between one who has definitely embraced error and one who is the unsuspecting victim of false teachers. Of such we must have compassion, making a difference, with a view to delivering such victims.
Paul's exhortations to the Thessalonians clearly show that he expected them to adopt a ' hospital' attitude to some. Whilst we do not overlook the fact that he instructed them to " warn the unruly," he urged them to comfort the feeble-minded. He did not have mental defectives in mind, but those who were faint-hearted, small-souled, who lacked robust confidence and, seeing difficulties or dangers in every situation, shrank from any enterprise for Christ; nor did he mean the Thessalonians to comfort them in the sense of pampering them, which would but aggravate their frailty. He meant that such were to be encouraged, an effort was to be made to put fresh heart into them. Moreover they were to support the weak and to be patient to all. Patient—how like a nurse ! " Patients " do not usually live up to their strange misnomer, they are more often querulous and nervous— those who wait on them manifest such admirable patience. And so would we if, thankful for our measure of spiritual health, we recognized difficult or dispirited saints as being sick and in need of sympathetic and wise treatment.
Casualties sometimes occur among the saints, and some get overtaken in a fault. At present we have nothing to say about cases where Scripture calls for solemn discipline for the sake of the Lord's Name and for the sinner's own good. This subject will be dealt with in due course— perhaps we might think of such cases in the light of painful surgical operations, which have sometimes to be resorted to when the trouble is too grave to admit of ordinary curative methods. We are thinking not of cases where a deliberate course of wickedness has been pursued by a believer, but where a believer has been pursued and overtaken by a fault. The spiritual may be able to restore such an one—surely a hospital function. Note—the spiritual. Much as we admire the humanity and patience of hospital staffs we would have grave misgivings about their ministrations were we not assured of their qualifications, of their knowledge and skill acquired by training and experience. Similarly, how can men discharge the solemn responsibility of caring for souls unless they have learnt the art in communion with the Great Shepherd, as He has revealed to them, first of all, the secrets and the sicknesses of their own hearts, and His gracious skill in His treatment of them ? Only as the healthy and strong imbibe, and then manifest, something of His Own Spirit of understanding and patient kindness, can the confidence of troubled souls be gained—and how important this is ! A doctor who commands the respect and confidence of his patient has gone a long way towards curing him even before treatment has begun, and if he can spare the time to listen sympathetically while the patient unburdens his trouble, the cure is sometimes automatic. What a wonderful gift is the art of listening aright. How eager we are to give advice, when often enough if we could only listen and listen, we could help our brother to discover his own cure.
No doubt the true reward of a born doctor or nurse is not the salary received but the consciousness of a high duty well done—the satisfaction of seeing a man, once weak and ill, restored, by skilful attention, to health and strength. The man may be sufficiently dense not to recognize his indebtedness, or so inexcusably thoughtless as not to express his gratitude, but the doctor who follows his noble profession with a strong sense of vocation can look beyond the thoughtless individual, to the high ideal which animates his work.
The servant of Christ who cares for souls has neglected the plain lessons of Scripture if he looks for his brethren's appreciation as his reward. He may, by prayer and unostentatious but skilful ministrations, render a service of untold value to troubled souls without those souls ever recognizing their debt. It will be joy enough to the one who seeks only the Lord's glory and His people's blessing, to see the development of spiritual vigour in those once sickly and weak. He serves not merely an ideal, though he has the noblest, but a personal Master, who is quick to note with approval those who arc ready to spend and be spent for the saints' sake, and will give the grace needed to look forward with joy to the fulfilment of the promise “And whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again I will repay thee." Splendid recompense! Meanwhile let "him know that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death and shall hide a multitude of sins."