‘I DESIRE THE FULLEST LIBERTY FOR THE SPIRIT, but not the
least for the flesh’, wrote J. N. Darby in 1839. This sentence highlights a problem facing every local church. Can we have liberty in services without disorder? Extremists exist in this as in so many other cases affecting church life. One man would end all liberty; another would revel in a liberty that makes a mockery of the proper function of an assembly.
Liberty in services is not an Old Testament idea. It could not exist side by side with the strict requirements of the Law. Severe penalties were inflicted on any who intruded into the priests’ office. Even in the synagogue (the services of which were conducted on much less formal lines than those in the Temple) the proceedings were in the hands of ‘the ruler’. He decided who should take part, and members of the congregation could not lead in prayer unless called upon to do so, and then only in the set forms. Nor could they read from the Scriptures or speak without being asked, and the readings were prescribed.
The death of Christ and the formation of the Church brought in an entirely new order of things. The Acts of the Apostles and the epistles reveal that the services of the early church were characterized by liberty. Dr. Thomas Lindsay says ‘What cannot fail to strike us in this picture is the un¬trammelled liberty of the worship, the possibility of every male member of the congregation taking part in the prayers and the exhortations, and the consequent responsibility laid on the whole community to see that the service was for the edification of all’. This testimony is the more striking when we remember that the writer was the Principal of the Glasgow College of the United Free Church of Scotland and weakened his own case by what he wrote. He goes on to say ‘When we consider the rebukes that the apostle considered it necessary to administer, it is also somewhat surprising to find so few injunctions which take the form of definite rules for public worship, and to observe the confidence which the apostle had that if certain broad principles were laid down and observed, the community was of itself able to conduct all things with that attention to decency and order which ensured edification’.
Tradition dies hard, and the traditions of the various sections of Christendom are almost unanimously opposed to liberty in the public services of the church. Persons who are brought up and saved in these traditions regard it as axiomatic that all services will be in the hands of one or more responsible men, and that no one else will be allowed to take part. Most remarkable of all perhaps is the conviction to be found in almost every circle from Romanism to the Free Churches that the Lord’s Supper especially calls for the presidency of some official. It is very difficult for believers who have taken all this for granted to realize that there is no scriptural warrant for it. So long as they are being fed and given opportunities of service under a traditional system it is rare for them to give it any thought. Their loss is very great, for there are aspects of worship that cannot easily be entered into apart from liberty.
Despite all this there are some who, seeing liberty abused, wish to put an end to it where it exists. This is like paralyzing a man to remove his aching tooth.
At the other extreme some would allow liberty to run riot. They regard it as essential that every man should have his say. ‘I never could understand’, wrote J. N. Darby, ‘why the church of God is to be the only place where flesh is to have its way unrestrained. It is folly to suppose this … The church, for God’s glory, is as bound to stop it there (and more, for it is the place of holy order) as elsewhere, and the means are just the same, the grounds just the same, and it is written “Let the others judge" … I have not the least idea of subjecting myself to the self-will of another’s notion, that he is to speak when he cannot profit the church … I have no right to wrong the whole church of God, making them unhappy, and hindering the gathering of the saints, to humour the flesh of any.'
After all, i Corinthians 14 was written to control liberty in the public services. The number of speakers is limited, for God knows the limited capacity of the listener’s mind. The women are not to take part. Only suitably gifted persons are to address the church. All that takes place is to serve the purpose of building-up believers. ‘The others’ are to judge if this is being done.
If there is only one teacher in an assembly, brethren should be humble enough to acknowledge this, and should realize that God has sent him to be used. If there is no teacher in the assembly the position will not be remedied by some ungifted person taking up time and pretending to teach whilst his brethren wait for him to finish. Surely it is better in this case to close a little earlier, or to occupy with worship the time that would otherwise be given to ministry. It will then be absolutely vital to seek the help of a teacher from another assembly at a ‘ministry meeting’. Whether this is held on the Lord’s Day, or during the week, might well be governed by the practical consideration as to when the larger number of believers will be present. Elders should do everything possible to ensure that every person in fellowship comes under the regular ministry of the Word. Perhaps our greatest weakness is the large proportion of saints who are absent when ministry is given, and who, consequently, never make spiritual progress.