J. H. Large
WE NOW GIVE SOME OF OUR REASONS for suggesting that assemblies may yet have to face a resurgence of the spirit of clerisy. We can readily anticipate the kind of retort which some of our remarks will evoke but lack of space makes it impossible to meet anticipated objections. We write with the utmost charity, glad to recognize devotion and sincerity wherever we see it, and quite content if readers will simply give prayerful consideration to what is said.
Despite some misgivings, most of us, no doubt, have felt thankful when young believers away from home have found fellowship in one or more of the various organizations which exist for helping Christians in the Services, in colleges, hospitals and like places; but time has proved that misgivings were not altogether groundless. In their special circumstances they have become accustomed to a religious mixture in which it is so easy to accept the idea that so long as everybody is happy everything must be all right. If, in addition, they are deprived of the privileges and corrective influences of assembly life it is not altogether surprising if, considering their immaturity, their early convictions as to the teaching of Scripture relating to the Church are weakened. When this happens, they return home with a free and easy attitude to assembly life and profess to see no difficulty, for example, in denominational ministers being invited to teach in the assembly.
The Assembly Affected
Objection to this is not a matter of personal prejudice but plain common sense based on principle. How can we conscientiously accept as teachers, men who, however much personal affection we may have for them, either do not see what we value as the truth about church life and fellowship, the scriptural ministry, and the ordinances of Believers’ Baptism and The Lord’s Supper, or who, if they have seen it, decline, for reasons which presumably they think adequate, to put it into effect? On the other hand they openly support the clerical system which has been productive of so much evil during the history of the Church. If responsible elders allow an assembly to be taught by men in this position, how can they complain if believers conclude that the matters we have mentioned are of no importance?
Teachers without Conviction
There is danger from another direction. We rejoice when earnest men see the errors of clerisy and abandon them for fellowship in a scriptural assembly at some sacrifice of prestige and comfort. Such men have learned to value privileges more highly than some who have always enjoyed them, and their willingness to obey the Scripture is a real service to the cause of truth. But there are men who seem to regard fellowship in an assembly merely as a means of entering an extra field of activity. They do not renounce their ecclesiastical associations and seem quite happy to return as occasion serves. It is hardly to be expected that their influence will be on the side of building up solid assembly life.
Whilst we are far from indulging in the sweeping condemnations which some level at Bible Colleges without distinction, it is nevertheless, an elementary duty to consider calmly the possible ultimate effect of present trends, instead of being swept off our feet by enthusiasts however well meaning. Who can deny that there is an urgent need to provide promising young men with a good grounding in the Scriptures and we can, at least, be thankful that when so many seminaries are hotbeds of modernism there are Bible Colleges which have been founded with a sincere desire to provide sound instruction in the faith. But we think we may be pardoned if we confess to misgivings as to the ultimate effects of movements which seek to achieve a scriptural end in an unscriptural way. Such movements, however admirable they may have seemed at first, have a disconcerting way of exacting their own penalties in due course. Advocates who claim that the method is scriptural refer us to the Old Testament precedent in the school of the prophets, but we would have thought that the record is a warning rather than an example. Certainly what is revealed about the ‘sons of the prophets’ is not very encouraging.
Nevertheless, we are glad to recognize that with the blessing of God many earnest young men have gained benefit but this recognition by no means commits us to the system or blinds our minds to its weaknesses. At present we can only notice the fact that young men are withdrawn to a large extent from the influences of assembly life and the practising of scriptural principles at a formative age and put under the instruction of men whose very position makes it impossible to give scriptural guidance vitally necessary if these young men are going to be a help in the work of assemblies.
Moreover it would be foolish to ignore the possibility of the position deteriorating when another generation of tutors teaches another generation of students,
A Distinct Class
We are already approaching the position that where a young man professes concern about devoting himself to the Lord’s work he is forthwith recommended to a Bible College. To a large extent his spiritual growth, his progress in the things of God and the development of his gift will not be within the observation of his elder brethren but a diploma will be evidence that he has satisfied his examiners. If this process continues, will it be surprising if eventually a distinction is drawn between those men who have a diploma and those who have not? This has an ominous sound for any who have taken the trouble to study the rise of ministerial domination in the denominations. Indeed there is already a tendency to press for some form of recognized pastorate and some young men, seeing no prospect of this in assemblies, have sought ordination. Incidentally we are acutely aware of the tremendous need of real pastoral work by devoted men with experience of God and the needs of His people, but we are here concerned with the danger of officialism.
A Salaried Class
What would have been said if years ago it had been suggested that the time would come when there would be agitation for a recognized scale of remuneration for those who devote their whole time to the Lord’s work? Exactly the same kind of thing will be said in reply to our present warnings! But we have seen it come. We are not overlooking the teaching of Scripture as to the responsibility of the Lord’s people, but this is a very different thing from a worker expecting a guaranteed income. What has happened to that sturdy dependence upon God which characterized men who were prepared to step out in faith at the call of God, looking to Him to guide and support them by the channels of His choice ? Is God no longer aware of His servants’ needs, or being aware of them, no longer able to supply them? To say that the Lord’s people have sometimes failed and that the Lord’s servants have sometimes had to suffer hardship is saying no more than could be said of the experiences of even such men as the apostles, but they gave no indication that the solution was an agreed remuneration. We are confident that men who have proved God in the trial of faith would agree that their experience is something they would not barter for the dubious security of a human arrangement.
The Assembly the School
Let it not be thought for a moment that we are unconcerned about the tremendous need for our young men to be given a thorough grounding in the faith, but we are convinced that the proper school is the assembly, if we include in that the advantages of gaining practical experience under the guidance of older and more experienced workers. We do not think that anyone who takes the New Testament for his authority will be able to deny this. Nevertheless, it is imperative that we be realistic and we ruefully admit that in many cases assemblies have failed in this respect. In a generation enervated by comfort and luxury there is a distressing disinclination to awake to urgent problems and tackle them energetically and thoroughly, counting on God to bless devoted labour, when there seems to be an easier way of relieving us of responsibility.
If we leave the solution to enthusiastic opportunists who resort to what seems at the moment to offer the best prospect of immediate success, we shall have only ourselves to blame if the way is opened for further departure from the scriptural order in the next generation. We are all, to some extent, custodians of the future. It is futile to find fault with those who are attempting something whilst fighting shy of the problem ourselves. We are thankful to see some signs of awakening and we ought to give vigorous encouragement to every attempt to meet the need on scriptural lines. J. H L.