My dear Brother:
It is upon my heart to write to you freely and familiarly about some things affecting the practical state of the gatherings, which the Lord (we may trust) is bringing into being in so many places now, often in great weakness and isolation, separated by long distances from one another, as on this immense continent of North America especially. The weakness, if only realized, would be indeed matter for thanksgiving and an occasion of real strength; and the isolation from other help should cast them more immediately upon the Church's Head. I cannot speak then of felt weakness as being really that, or lament that circumstances should be favourable to that walk with God alone, which is what at all times the Lord has called His people to. Still, these circumstances have their peculiar difficulties, and call for some special consideration, as I think - some special attempt to minister to the need by those who have in some measure felt it, and who, by their very mistakes and failures, have been taught what they would desire others to learn in a better way. That so much of what we speak of has been knowledge acquired in this painful manner, may serve to free the writer from even the appearance of self-conceit in communicating it.
Without further preface, then, let me commence with some thoughts as to the gathering itself, which is indeed the first consideration, and a matter of all importance. For this very reason its beginning in any place is so critical a thing.
A bad constitution at the beginning, just as in the physical condition of an individual, may lead to an unhealthy state which may never be recovered from. Let me say, then, that the first of all requisites for a true gathering to the Lord's Name, is that it be of the Lord's making. You will understand that I do not mean by that merely that those gathered together should be themselves the Lord's. That is a matter of course, which I need not dwell on, for I am not now seeking to establish what the Church of God is, or what the gathering to Christ's Name is: I assume that as known and acknowledged by those I speak of. But I mean that then - actual drawing together should be by the Spirit, working by the truth upon the heart, and by nothing else.
I believe the very thought of the unity of the Church of God may be unintelligently used to hinder this. That every Christian (the maintenance of a Scriptural discipline being understood of course) has a right to the Lord's Table, may become an argument for methods of gathering which are quite unsuited to the days in which we live, and tend only to produce confusion instead of what will glorify God.
For real gathering the Holy Ghost must gather, and Christ therefore it is who must be the attractive Object, for thus alone the Holy Ghost works. It is only weakness, for instance, where a wife follows a husband into fellowship, or a husband his wife, or children their parents, without personal exercise and conviction. Or where pleasant companionship is the object even in divine things. Or where people come in just because converted under one in fellowship; or where one's personal blessing is the object sought. All these are motives short of Christ Himself, and acting upon them should be as far as possible discouraged. We cannot indeed refuse Christians their place upon this ground only, but we can and ought to put them solemnly upon their responsibility to act as to and under the Lord alone.
(Without "refusing" a person, an assembly may well postpone the "receiving" until it is quite clear to do so. - Ed.)
Intelligence as to more than fundamental truth we must not require.
(Intelligence in the truth is not the first thing, but singleness of eye. - Ed.)
When the Church first began, and disciples came together to break bread, the truth of the One Body was not yet known; and "babes" have their place at the Father's board as well as full-grown sons. On the other hand, profession is absolutely worthless except justified by the life; and we have to remember that our rule for a day of failure is to purge ourselves from the vessels to dishonour, and "follow righteousness, faith, love, peace, with those that call on the Lord out of a pure heart."
We do not pretend to judge who is who, as Christians; we do not pretend, in refusing fellowship, to say that the person is not a Christian: "the Lord knoweth them that are His," not we. But we cannot associate with 'vessels to dishonour,' and be ourselves "vessels to honour, sanctified and meet for the Master's use;" and we know the pure-hearted by the righteousness, as well as faith and love, that we follow with them. In days of common and easy profession, the test which is not imposed by the circumstances amid which we move, must be only the more rigidly imposed by those with whom "truth in the inward parts" is recognized as the Lord's requirement.
And here let me insist a little - for there is need, - that a most Scriptural test, and an important one, is that of one's associations. Even the world has its proverbs bearing upon this. "Tell me who your companions are, and I will tell you who you are," says one of them; and as an estimate of moral character we recognize the truth of this. A man's moral level cannot be much above that of his voluntary associations. Above all, where Christ is denied or dishonoured, one who winks at this dishonour is plainly unfit for communion with Himself.
Let me illustrate by an example. A freemason, if a Christian, is not only yoked unequally with unbelievers, but still more with those who purposely omit the Lord's Name out of their corporate prayers, to accommodate Jews and unbelievers generally; he is openly linked with the Lord's dishonour. The same may be said of those who sit down in communion with it. The teaching of Scripture is that, "he that biddeth him Godspeed," or gives him salutation, "is partaker of his evil deeds;" and that "if any one purge himself from these (vessels to dishonour), he shall be a vessel unto honour" (2 John; 2 Timothy 2). Have we then any right to count those vessels unto honour, who do not so purge themselves?
It is a question thus of practical walk, this association; and as truly a matter of discipline, or of exclusion, as any other. In these days in which "confederacy" is so leading a principle, it is one of very solemn importance.
Now a word or two as to reception. It is the act of the whole gathering in a place, just as much as is exclusion; whether there be "two or three" gathered, or two or three hundred. This leads to the practical necessity of submitting the name of any one to be received to the whole gathering a sufficient time before reception, to allow all to know and realize what they are doing. Practically it may be that there are a few who have the confidence of the assembly, upon whom the work of visiting and enquiry will usually devolve; but these ought never upon such ground to assume to act for the assembly, nor can the assembly rightly rest their responsibility upon these. Communication is a thing which concerns every individual; as to "receive one another" must of necessity be individual. It has been objected that there is no Scripture for making people wait a week or more, and it is quite true that in that shape there is none. But every text which enforces our responsibility as to our associations with others, enforces also the necessity of giving opportunity to all to be of one mind in such a matter as this. And a really godly person, who understands the reason of his being asked to wait to proceed from care for the Lord's glory, and to have fellowship a real thing, will be content to wait, if it were a month, rather than hinder this, nay, will be only too glad to see this care practically exercised.
This touches another point - the matter of introduction to fellowship, on the part of a brother or more, for one occasion, as of a person accidently present, and known by him to be a Christian. Ought such individual judgment to be imposed on an assembly, without giving them time or opportunity to express their own mind intelligently about it? It is my own clear and deliberate conviction that this ought never be done, and I think full and Scriptural reason can be given for it.
The right of a Christian to communion is not in question: the question is who is to recognize the right? Is it the assembly, or is it the individual? The two or three gathered to the Name of the Lord have His promise to be with them; but they cannot transfer this to one or more among them acting for the rest. If it be allowed to all to introduce, how many are there whose judgment could not at all be trusted in a matter of the kind? If on the other hand, it be only the privilege of a few to do so, an official class is set up, very hard to define, impossible to be allowed to define themselves, and wholly unknown to Scripture.
If it be said, this only applies to occasional, not regular communion, I answer, if a person be recognized as entitled to "break bread" for a single time, he cannot be rightly refused at any other; except of course in a case where discipline has to be maintained, to which all are equally subject who are at the table of the Lord. The place is the same for all exactly, and reception is exactly the same also. If we admit the idea of "occasional" communion, we should make provision for what is contrary to the Lord's mind; for He certainly gives no permission to wander from His table. And while we cannot prevent this, nor require intelligence as a pre-requisite where the heart is really right with God, we cannot and may not on the other hand ourselves admit the title to wander.
I have said all this, dear brother, in so brief a way that I feel there is need to ask you not to mistake brevity for dogmatism. I have indeed myself the strongest belief that what I have said will stand the fullest test of the Word of God; and I trust and believe you will not receive anything on my part, that the blessed Word does not authenticate. Here, for the present, then, I close, though with much more upon my mind, to which at a future time I may ask you to listen.
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