J. H. Large
IN OUR TREATMENT of the features of a scriptural church we now come to the question of the maintenance of sound doctrine.
We wish we could take it for granted that Christians generally were awake to their responsibility in this matter. The Church should be the pillar and ground of the truth, 1 Tim. 3. 15, and it is, no doubt, with this thought in mind that Paul urges so strongly upon Timothy such exhortations as ‘give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine’, ‘Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season …’. Titus was told that an overseer should be a man who holds fast the faithful word … that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince, Titus 1. 9.
A Foolish Optimism
There is a dangerous inclination to assume that truth will somehow maintain itself automatically, but the Scripture gives no encouragement to this idea. Paul was keenly alive to the threats to which truth was exposed, as his warning to the Ephesian elders amply proves, Acts 20. 28-30. His purpose in leaving Timothy at Ephesus was that he might charge some that they teach no other doctrine, 1 Tim. 1. 3. Not content with charging those responsible to teach, he placed responsibility on the hearers to test what was presented to them. The Thessalonians were a splendid group of Christians, as the apostle’s generous tributes to them testify, but they appear to have been too ready to listen uncritically to those who professed to come to them with God’s Word. ‘Prove all things’, he said, ‘hold fast that which is good’, 1 Thess. 5. 21.
A Warning from History
The fate of communities which once stood loyally for Gospel truth should be sufficient to rebuke the easy-going assumption mentioned above. Too much reliance was placed upon official teachers, and when the influence of modernistic theological colleges began to be felt, men pledged to support the faith began to undermine it, and those who sat under them were either too ill-informed or too timid to refute their doctrines. How much better it would have been if, like the Bereans, they had searched the Scriptures to see whether these things were so, Acts 17. 11.
A Growing Danger
A curious fallacy to which human nature seems to be prone is ‘It cannot happen to us!’. It can. We are far from encouraging a censorious attitude and we abominate the spirit which swoops down on any remark which falls short of the critic’s idea of perfection, or threatens a pet theory, making a man ‘an offender for a word’, but we equally deplore spineless toleration of teaching which does not accord with the balance of Scripture testimony. Jude was attracted to the idea of expounding the doctrines of the faith, but the Spirit of God constrained him to the less pleasant, but then more necessary, task of exhorting Christians to contend earnestly for the faith already delivered to them. We must be thankful if no serious inroads on the truth have yet been made among us, but the devil will need to change his nature if we are to be spared his efforts. The extent to which teaching contrary to truth long cherished by us is allowed without protest, docs not encourage the hope that more positive errors would meet with a sufficiently prompt and effective resistance. The situation in Christendom today is such that there is hardly a distinctive truth of Christianity which is not questioned in some professedly Christian pulpit. How came this? We have already answered - through the ignorance and apathy of congregations. Let us take heed.
Bigotry versus Tolerance
In such a situation it becomes a serious question for any earnest Christian, how far he can have any links with systems which are being permeated with error, without guilty complicity. Bigotry is such a loathsome and ugly disease that all right-minded Christians shrink from being suspected of infection, but broad-minded toleration of almost anything is not the proper alternative. True, we are to let our moderation be known unto all men, remembering that the Lord is standing by, correctly assessing the whole situation and aware of all we think and say, Phil. 4. 5. Reasonable men will not claim that they have a perfect and complete grasp of the whole will of God when even Paul could say ‘We know in part’, but we must have convictions and we are responsible to implement the truth committed to us. Whilst far from indifferent to the distressing divisions and whilst sensitive to the agonizing dilemma of earnest souls who try to find some acceptable middle ground, the fact that these divisions are plainly the inevitable result of departure from the Word of God convinces us that the only course is to stand for the truth as we know it. Weak expediency has often been dressed up in the finery of a grand tolerance, but toleration is one of those virtues which can readily degenerate into a vice. In all conscience this generation had had proof on a world-wide scale that constant concessions is another way of asking to be absorbed.
Some will tell us that we shall deprive ourselves of splendid opportunities of usefulness if we accept the limits of the scriptural pattern. But this is not a question we are called upon to settle. We must seek to do the Lord’s will as we see it, and leave to Him issues outside our province. But we beg leave to question the allegation that our usefulness will be impaired. We rejoice to know that the Lord is at work everywhere, and often in the most surprising places, but a more pertinent question is ‘what would be accomplished if all believers were prepared to accept the scriptural way?’. To say that more work is accomplished outside than among those who seek to maintain the scriptural way of things, may be true, but surely a bald statement like this is altogether out of perspective. We believe it can quite fairly be asserted that in proportion to their numbers and size more is in fact accomplished by those companies which take scriptural ground. Let the reader calmly weigh the evidence before accepting or rejecting this statement.
Some errors which have gained wide acceptance among Christians are hoary with antiquity and are now so firmly entrenched that any protest against them is frowned upon as an attempt to revive dead controversies which received respectable burial long ago. Presumably, then, errors which for long centuries have stubbornly and successfully resisted the pressure of truth have now earned the right to live on, wearing a well-earned halo of sanctity! Unimpressed by this amiable arrangement we venture now to refer to a matter which we believe is at the very root of the shameful confusion which abounds in Christendom today. We do so at this moment only because we believe it has an important bearing on the subject now concerning us - namely the maintenance of truth among us. What we have in mind is the system of clerisy, with all the evils and abuses it has brought in its train. With a heart which gladly embraces every child of God, we are quite willing to listen to all that can be said to the credit of devout men, but in face of protests which may be made, we express our agreement with not a few godly and well instructed men who have declared with a full sense of responsibility, that clerisy has restricted the freedom of the Spirit of God in the Church, robbed God’s people of much of their rightful heritage and provided fertile soil for other errors. We can quite believe that brethren who enjoy the privileges which have come to them through deliverance from the system, as the result of the conviction and courage of a former generation, might imagine that the reintroduction of clerisy is the very last threat we need be concerned about. Maybe they will think differently when we have been able to put forward our reasons for raising the matter, as we hope to do in the next issue. J. H. L.