THE RIGHTS OF THE HOLY SPIRIT IN THE HOUSE OF GOD.
AN APPEAL FOR SCRIPTURAL LIBERTY IN THE MINISTRY OF THE WORD OF GOD
Letter One. November 1937.
Mr. N-------- has informed me of your wishes regarding what I said at your annual meeting upon the unfaithful servant of our Lordís parables in Luke 19 and Matthew 25, that you desire such subjects to be omitted from ministry I may give in future.
In various of my writings I have emphasized the duty of local elders to restrain in their midst what they regard as unscriptural or unprofitable ministry, and that this, not the resort to a controlled platform, is the scriptural way of dealing with such ministry. It follows that I shall, of course, be ready to have respect to your desires, should the Lord again send me to gatherings for the ordering of which you are responsible to Him, even though personally I may think that in this particular case you, with every desire to do what is right, are acting partially and not to the true welfare of the people of God or in real interests of the truth.
It is the easier to accept your suggestion because of the gracious and brotherly way in which it has been expressed. I cannot but contrast this with the very different manner in which I was treated many years ago by responsible brethren then in your city, and I rejoice and thank God that a happier and more godly spirit now prevails, for this will command His approval.
It is not necessary to say more, save to thank you heartily for the kind things said as to other elements of my ministry among you. I am writing to Mr. N------ personally upon some aspects of these matters, and you will be welcome to read what I am saying, if you wish.
Commending you to the grace of the Lord Jesus for your holy and responsible service in His house,
Yours affectionately in Him, G. H. LANG.
My dear Brother,
Enclosed with this is a letter in answer to yours on behalf of the brethren in oversight, for which I thank them, as well as yourself for the brotherly covering note. In the latter I have expressed my sincere appreciation of the gracious tone in which the brethren have written, and the same is true of your own kind note.
I have remarked upon the welcome difference in this to the action taken in 1918 or 1919. The dear brethren then leading the assemblies in your parts specially and urgently (by telegram) asked me to expound to a gathering from the whole country certain features of my prophetic views. At the close of the evening meeting one of the oldest brethren in your city, now with Christ, assured me that, while some had consented to the invitation with all sincerity of heart, others had done so because they hoped that in the issue my ministry would be thereby prevented, or at least prejudiced. Subsequent events justified his statement, as you may remember.
I mention this now because it emphasizes the solemn responsibility incurred by rulers in the house of God when they deal with matters concerning the ministry of the Word in their midst. For those brethren virtually deprived the sheep of the Lord under their care of any further help in the following thirteen years which it might conceivably have pleased Him to send through me. For this the Great Shepherd may hold them responsible.
Let me now tell you how I came five years ago to resume on my own account attendance at your conferences. Happening to be in the neighbourhood just before the meetings an esteemed brother and I were rejoicing that they still followed the New Testament plan of liberty of ministry. He added, As you feel so strongly to this effect ought you not to support the brethren in their course by attending the meetings? After some hesitation (in view of the circumstances above mentioned), I decided to do so, and was gratified when I found that a friend had felt moved graciously to prepare the way at your end without knowing what I had in mind. The present kind words by yourself and your brethren as to my ministry in general justify the hope that this step was of the Lord.
In my letter I have expressed my readiness to do as the brethren wish as regards not dealing with such subjects as the unfaithful servant introduced by our Lord in Luke 19, but I have added, "should the Lord again send me among you." Let me say plainly that this is not a veiled intimation that I shall be unwilling to come again on account of their present action. My heart will not be affected by it. I shall study to be as wholly at the ordering of the Lord as to your city as much as any other place. But this I must say, that on different occasions when action has been taken to restrict ministry, I have seen the Lord Himself very definitely cease to direct my path thither and open doors elsewhere.
It has to be remembered that, in the event of a restriction not to His mind being imposed,His rights are invaded, and He knows how to act in His own interests and for the justification of His servants. It has very often been the case that opposition to a servant of God in one land or district has been followed by His Master depriving that place of his service and sending him to be a blessing in another: "they will not receive of thee testimony concerning Me . . . Depart: for I will send thee forth far thence" (Ac. 22: 18-21).
When the action taken in your district years ago, and similar concurrent treatment by a certain magazine, made difficulties for me in some parts of this country, suddenly, without any thought of it on my part, doors were opened to many other lands, with needy and wonderful spheres. On the other hand, a few years ago, when some leading brethren in a distant country laid down a condition without the warrant of the Word, for four weeks I sat silent among them before the Lord would give me any opening of the mouth, though the assembly as a whole was hungering for food.
Such things teach how solemn a matter it is to deal with ministry, lest it be forfeited, and that those whose duty it is need to have the clearest warrant from the Word of the Lord, and not to act merely out of regard to their own judgment, or preference, or the feelings of others for or against this or that teacher or line of teaching.It is woefully easy to tolerate what the many approve, or to restrain what influential men dislike, and thereby to hinder the Spirit from giving what souls need. Medicine is not always palatable. If I mistake not, this is going on widely to-day, is a factor in the decrease of spiritually effective ministry, and is attended with real injury to the moral condition of Godís people. Except (perhaps) in the very first generation of Christians has there ever been a period when the views of the majority have been the truth? I heard Dr. A. T. Pierson say: "We have a saying, ĎGreat is the truth, and will prevail.í That is never so in this age. Truth is always with the minority; and so convinced am I of this that if I find myself agreeing with the majority on any matter, I make haste and get over to the other side, for I know I am wrong."
Are not all right thinking brethren troubled by the undeniable increase of serious and open moral declension among Christians? Ought we not to be enquiring deeply, and before God, as to the cause of this? Doubtless they are many, but does it go beyond the greater probability, almost certainty, thatthe great majority at least of those over whom we sorrow hold the popular prophetic views? Do they not agree in rejecting the application of the unfaithful servant to believers, in opposing the thought of penalties following the judgment seat of Christ, and in asserting the certainty of a place in the millennial kingdom for every Christian? And ought not brethren to ask seriously whether anything but moral weakness can result when the searching words of the Lord, certainly addressed ostensibly to His own servants, are emasculated of all force and application to such as being relegated to the unregenerate, and His judgment seat is robbed of its terrors for evil-doers among His people?
There are various points of interpretation in which I do not agree with the Newtonian school of prophecy. They are too pronouncedly Calvinistic. They also do not give due weight to the solemn warnings of the Word to believers. I think them mistaken in regarding the parousia as one continuous movement, and that Darby was right in holding it to be a period, though he erred in placing its beginning before Antichrist, instead of at the close of the Tribulation, as Newton placed it. But I have come to see clearly that Newton and others, a century ago, were justified in forewarning that the scheme of prophetic and dispensational exposition then lately introduced by Darby was, as a scheme, and allowing for its element of truth, calculated to effect serious moral deterioration in those who should adopt it, since as a scheme it demanded that the more part of Christís discourses do not apply to Christians, and thus it would rob them of those conscience-searching truths and warnings.
This was too quickly and largely evidenced. For Darby himself soon showed that his views on these matters had no moral power to make him afraid of the consequences of bitterness, calumny, slander, and world-wide strife among saints, such as ruined the testimony to the unity of believers committed to Brethren at the first. His chief lieutenants fully imbibed and displayed the opinions and spirit of their leader; and in general, allowing indeed for happy exceptions, those since who have most strenuously fought for his views on these matters have shown the like intolerance. Years ago there was a meeting of leading Open Brethren of different opinions to consider these disputed questions. When I asked one of that period why nothing of value came of that gathering he answered, Because so and so (naming a strenuous maintainer of popular views) was such a little fighting cock! This is the more observable since Darby and so many others were otherwise such good and useful men.
Perhaps many do not recognize to what lengths this spirit has gone and still goes. The leading brother of an Open Meeting told me unequivocally that he would not break bread with anyone who held the view that the church will go through the Tribulation. I asked if he really meant that should Muller have sought fellowship he would have refused it. But he stuck to his assertion.
Doubtless most among us would not go to so plainly unscriptural a length as to make fellowship dependent upon agreement as to prophecy, but it is commonly made a test for accepting ministry. I read a letter from a former convener of the largest annual gatherings in the north which stated that they had not felt difficulty in receiving James Wright of Bristol to their platform because they privately judged he would not obtrude his view upon the point just mentioned, upon which he agreed with his father-in-law, George Muller. So that the acceptance of ministry from that man of faith and most acceptable teacher was tacitly contingent upon his suppressing part of his convictions as to the truth of God, and the liberty in ministry of a spiritually great man was restricted by the opinions of the smaller men around him. Let it be plainly asked was it the mind and requirement of the Head of the church that James Wrightís grace and forbearance should be presumed upon by men of less grace and more opinionativeness than he? If this be affirmed, we shall require Scripture to justify the attitude.
But bigotry can go much further than this. At your last conference, concerning which you have now written, a leading and esteemed brother enquired whether it is the case that I hold that souls are unconscious between death and resurrection, for this had been asserted to him most positively, as quite beyond doubt. I thanked him for raising the question, and equally positively denied the assertion.
Again, in a widely read magazine I have been charged with teaching that believers may be chastised in the lake of fire. Not one word of mine, spoken or written, can be added to support this; it is completely false. Yet it was so stated in print, so as to be read by tens and tens of thousands, and is still believed by many without question. In part, it was because I saw a rare opportunity publicly to correct this wrong notion that I explained among you recently that I regard the "outer darkness" as NOT "the lake of fire," for the charge in question depends upon erroneously identifying these two figures of speech.
Now no possible end can be served by thus spreading baseless charges except to discredit the teacher and thus to prejudice his teaching. To such unworthy measures will holders of the popular views resort. A private remonstrance to the writer in the magazine, with definite assurance that he was mistaken, was met with a blank refusal to believe that I was telling the truth by my denial; and, with my denial before it, the magazine proceeded further in its attempt to fasten the charge upon me.
Is it not most distressing to see Christians spreading falsehood to support what they think truth? It reminds one of the saying of the world, that a diplomat is a man who tells lies for the good of his country. And is it any wonder if those who know of such actions ask whether the easy-going views that leave the conscience so undisturbed can be truth, or whether there must not be some other line of teaching in the Word calculated to prevent such conduct, or at least to condemn it and denounce penalties against it?
Not so long ago at an afternoon meeting I gave ministry to which no exception was or could be taken. The leading local brother said he thought it had been very good. Yet at the evening meeting an evangelist and a professional man dragged in the controversial topics I had not touched, as the basis of violent and bitter personal attacks, and one of them went so far as to extend his attack to an esteemed ministering brother not present.
Concerning the teaching of a partial rapture, and so the view held by Newton, Muller, Tregelles and other godly men, that the church will be on earth during the Tribulation, the editor of a magazine which champions fiercely the popular teaching, wrote in October, 1937, the words: "Let the Devil use all these evasions" (my italics). Similarly, a well-known evangelist, as I was told, said that the Devil knew well what he was doing when he got Mr. Lang to adopt the opinions he holds! The latter has already gone, and the editor is on his way to that tribunal where, as the presiding Judge has solemnly announced, it is by their words that men are justified or are condemned.
Thus have bitterness and intolerance too often characterized the popular views throughout the whole country of their existence, a long enough test to show their moral importance. What but carelessness of soul can possibly be the effect of such a statement as the said professional man made with emphasis: "No matter how you live as a Christian, you are certain to be part of the bride of Christ and to reign with Him"? or of a similar mischievous assertion I heard in 1935 from one who has taught these views for sixty years, "Every believer will be raised when Christ comes, no matter how worldly you may be"? Many teachers of the general views would shrink from putting the matter so baldly, but it is what they mean, it is inherent in their doctrine.
On the other hand, the leading victims of Darbyís attacks differed from him upon these very prophetic questions. Tregelles said in print at the time that every one knew that if only Newton had agreed with Darby on prophecy the latterís voice would not have been lifted against his old friend when his serious, though temporary, doctrinal error was discovered. And when this later came to light the evil consequences of not regarding the Gospels as for Christians was at once seen; for the one to whose notice the error was first brought was an old colleague of Newton, but he did not follow the principles for dealing with an offending brother as laid down by the Lord in Matthew 18; he did not draw the private attention of Newton to the error or make any attempt to gain his brother and win him back to the truth upon the matter in question; but instead, and without any notice, he wrote and allowed to be issued a public attack upon him as a heretic. The recantation that Newton shortly issued was utterly rejected, and his opponents used to the full the opportunity his error had given to hound off the field the most redoubtable and learned of the opposers of their prophetic scheme. The wild yells of the hunt as they chase their miserable quarry found counterpart in the fierceness with which Newton was treated at that time, and in the sacred name of truth.
In addition to Newton there were Muller, Craik, and others, holding with him that the church will pass through the Tribulation; there were saints such as Groves and Chapman believing, as I do, that the first resurrection is not guaranteed to all believers but is one of "first fruits," of reward. Now none of these great subjects of Darbyís bitterness displayed an answering bitterness under his attacks.This godly example I myself have sought to follow through twenty years of misrepresentation. The contrast shown in the spirit of those men to that shown by Darby and his helpers in that battle was surely indicative of a deeper fear of God begotten in part of accepting solemn passages of Scripture as applying to themselves. These all repudiated the theory, necessarily involved in Darbyís scheme, that the first three Gospels are mainly "Jewish." Against this idea I have argued at length in my "The Gospel of the Kingdom."
The influence of beliefs on practice is powerful. Several years ago the editor of a magazine then running sent to me the draft of an article he proposed to insert attacking me and my view of a pre-tribulation removal of watchful believers. It was saturated with vinegar and vitriol. I declined to discuss the matter, saying that if there was to be such mud-flinging I was ready to endure it but not to join in it. I pointed out that the views he held (Darbyís) evidently had no moral force to prevent him from bitter, ungracious treatment of a brother, just as they had not restrained Darby; but, on the contrary, believing that, were I to be alive at the time, bitterness and strife might cause me to go through the Tribulation for my perfecting, instead of escaping it, I dare not treat him as he was proposing to treat me. As far as I know the article was not published. I am happy now to be on friendly terms with its writer. Perhaps he has profited by experience he himself has since had of being attacked and disapproved for another view which he holds.
The moral bearing of any teaching is a chief test of its nature. While writing this letter a veteran missionary of more than forty years service, writes to me as follows: "I am getting well into the typed study of Selective Resurrection, and I think thus far the exhortations and warnings are very important, and do stimulate a more careful and consistent walk with Christ." Similarly a keen north countryman, to whom a friend explained this view, felt its healthy moral quality and said: "Look ye, mon, if its wrong its right, and if tíothers right its wrong."
Many years ago a lady was working with others in the gospel in another land.Earnest and able she made herself a nuisance by striving to put everyone else right in their work. I sent her a copy of D. M. Pantonís "Judgment Seat of Christ." Now this contains sundry things I do not subscribe, but it presses the searching warnings Scripture gives in connection with that solemn event. The lady wrote that when she learned from its pages that the Lord will deal with all wrong things she felt no further necessity for her to be judging and correcting everyone. For twenty-five years she has been a valued helper in that sphere.
Twenty-eight years since I met on a journey a gifted woman living to spread the gospel. I explained the passages which show that sharing with Christ in the millennial kingdom may be forfeited if a child of God walks after the world or the flesh. Meeting her in that land eighteen months later it was to find her just sailing to her own country to face things out with a worldly-minded minister to whom she was engaged. She was resolved to break with him if he was not ready to become wholehearted as a disciple. He was not willing, and she made the sacrifice determined. By her own avowal the awakening and resolution was the direct result of what she had learned through our conversation. She was not willing to risk the best that God is offering of fellowship with Christ but was determined to obtain a full reward. For twenty years, until her death, she pressed on.
In 1923 my path took me to a remote place in Europe where such bitter dissension in the assembly prevailed that for six months they had wisely desisted from observing the holy Supper. I was there but one night, and stressed the solemn side of the judgment seat of Christ, saying the very things that dear brethren in this land so often resent. The leading brother, a tough, resolute man, said in his heart (as I learned on a return visit): If this is how matters stand we will have to get this trouble put right. I had the joy to see this accomplished, the Table was spread once more, with softened, reconciled guests, and the Lord in the midst in truth.
Such results, deep and lasting, I have seen; and I am yet waiting to meet one believer to testify that he walked godly until these views were imbibed, and then as a consequence, he was turned back from piety and purity. And these instances are givento press the question, which responsible brethren really ought to face, as to the grounds they can produce from Scripture for suppressing the public exposition in the assemblies of teaching which it cannot be denied is morally healthy. With "schools" of thought and interpretation I have no concern: I would not write or speak a sentence to support any of them. The truth of the return of the Lord is so stated in the Word as to command and enforce practical holiness: "every one that hath this hope set on Him purifieth himself, even as He is pure": "seeing ye look for these things, give diligence that ye may be found in peace, without spot and blameless in His sight" (1 John 3: 3; 2 Pet. 3: 14). Any view which neither demands nor produces holiness is not accordant with this; any teaching the evident tendency of which is to promote it ought at least to be heard.
Let what is now being urged be observed with exactness. It is not here asserted that the popular prophetic views were or are the cause of those who advocate them being so frequently bitter in controversy. The causes lie in the state of the heart. But it is urged that these views never have hindered this lamentable spirit nor provoked love and patience, and that in their very nature they are not calculated to do so, because they empty the New Testament if its teaching of the severity of God towards His own family, and thus make His goodness a temptation to laxity. This one-sided, antinomian treatment of the truth hides the warning that those who call on God as Father are ever to remember that He is also a Judge, and a judge Who deals with everyone, believer as much as unbeliever, according to his works; and therefore we are to pass the time of our sojourning on earth in fear, striving to be holy because He is a holy Father and Judge with whom we have to reckon. It is to be noted that this line of teaching follows directly upon the call to set our hope upon the revelation of Jesus Christ, and concludes with a call to be unfeigned and fervent love of the brethren (1 Pet. 1: 13-22). If Darby had professed such a love for his brother Newton who could have believed him?
Let one detail be taken as a sample and test. The popular assertion is that the Lord may come at any moment. Many blessed and godly men hold this tenaciously; but if they can and will examine the matter critically they can perceive that this opinion is quite unnecessary to holiness. Peter did not hold it, for he knew from Christ that he had to live till he should be old and then die (John 21: 18), and it was in this expectation that he lived (2 Pet. 1: 13, 14). Paul did not hold it, certainly not between the time when the Lord told him definitely that he must bear witness at Rome and his having done this (Ac. 23: 11).
The essential matter that the Lord will come, and that each should be ready to face His judgment, is powerful in moral effect: the supposition that He may come to-day adds nothing to this effect, as is clearly shown by the renowned saintliness of men who flatly reject the idea. When William Hake told Robert Chapman that someone he had met held that the Lord might come at any moment, that choice saint answered, "Well, brother Hake, I am ready, but itís not in the Bible."
This moral aspect of the matter being really beyond challenge, the question must be pressed,Why shall a violent disturber of the peace of Godís house like a Darby be encouraged to assert boldly from every desk and on every platform that the Lord may come to-night, but a Chapman must not declare his belief to the contrary under the penalty of being blamed for grieving his brethren and as a provoker of strife? Why shall the one be in order in asserting dogmatically that the church will not, simply cannot, go through the Tribulation, while a George Muller, James Wright, David Baron, or A. T. Pierson may not equally freely explain his judgment to the contrary? Where in this discrimination is the impartiality, the fairness, the humility, the love of truth for its own sake, that ought to make all children of God and more especially the rulers of His house?
For the complaint mentioned has become the long-established habit of mind, as the very message you now send from your dear brethren instances. They say that the putting forth of diverse views creates an "awkward situation," because other brethren teach differently and it is a pity to cause discussions.But there would be no awkward situation were it not for the intolerance of the beloved brethren of the popular views against any other view. They virtually claim the right that their opinions alone shall be heard in the assemblies. This claim can in no wise be conceded. It is not warranted by Scripture, nor by the earlier and palmier days of the assemblies we love.
And first as to Scripture. We are all firmly agreed that teachings depreciatory of the Person, Offices, and Work of the Lord Jesus Christ are not Christian at all, and therefore must on no account be given any place in a gathering of Christians (2 John 10). But as to lesser questions, however important in their measure, how were those dealt with in apostolic days? A striking and critical instance is in Acts 15: 1. We read that "Certain men came down from Judea (to Antioch) and taught the brethren, saying, Except ye be circumcised after the custom of Moses ye cannot be saved."
Now this was fundamental to the matter of salvation, and therefore was of vastly greater importance than any questions of prophetic interpretation. Yet there was not a hint that the elder brethren at Antioch told these men that they must not set forth their views, because it was not generally accepted and was causing an "awkward situation" by provoking discussion. On the contrary, it is shown plainly that "no small discussion and questioning" went on , until at last the matter was referred to Jerusalem. A little reflection will show that, so far from such discussion being awkward and injurious, it was the rather eminently calculated to elucidate the subject, to illuminate minds, and thus to advance knowledge and establish truth. Years ago in Bristol a teacher had set forth the popular views. No objection was made to this , though most of the then leading men in that city had always differed from them, and might have pleaded this had they been of the spirit of their opponents. But afterward James Wright and G.F. Bergin gave addresses to show how far they thought the teachings of Scripture were otherwise. Done in grace this caused no evil, but tended rather to healthy exercise of mind.
It would be exactly thus were the diverse views as to baptism opened up. I can imagine nothing more calculated to convince the many that household baptism is not Scriptural than for one of its best advocates to say all that can be said in its favour. Possibly a few might be persuaded, as a few are now by private instruction; but the majority would be dissuaded by seeing how very little "all" is that can be urged.
By a process native to the human mind the suppression of a teaching creates a suspicion that there must be something in it, or its opponents would not so dread it. This provokes a certain sympathy with its advocates and their suppressed view and predisposes to it being considered favourably. Liberty of utterance avoids this danger, and the gracious setting forth of the opposing truth has the greater effect and blessing by the hearer knowing intelligently what is being controverted.
Returning to Acts 15. When the matter was debated at Jerusalem the same liberty of utterance was found. "There rose certain of the sect of the Pharisees who believed" and urged their legalistic opinion (ver. 5). Yet the apostles did not closure this airing of false views, but full discussion duly led to oneness of judgment (ver. 25). Thus was the mind of God reached, and also the formerly misguided were delivered from error.
If it is urged that this particular question had not hitherto been settled and that discussion was necessary for reaching a just conclusion, the answer is that this is exactly the position of prophetic enquiry; as yet "we know in part and prophecy in part." The editor of The Letters and Papers of Viscountess Powerscourt, in whose house the united prophetic studies of early Brethren commenced, explaining in 1838 why he included her views on prophecy, wrote:
"I should certainly not do what some persons, whom I esteem, have done - publish the sentiments of another, though at the same time considering them erroneous on the fundamental principles of the Gospel; but I would publish the sentiments of another on the future prospects of the Church, though in those sentiments I thought the writer was mistaken; because I consider the first subject to be vital, and that error on it is essentially dangerous; while I do not think so of the other subject. I consider the whole Church of Christ to be much in the dark with regard to prophecy, and more or less in error concerning it; and that the best way to correct the error, and to attain more light, is to encourage free discussion upon it. In order to reach the end, it is essential not to mistake as to the way. It is not equally essential to form correct anticipations as to what shall be found at the end. Those who are on the way shall reach the end, and then all their mistakes concerning it shall be corrected."
In these first days this liberty of discussion and exposition was continued among Brethren, and valuable progress in knowledge was made. They became great poineers and leaders in Bible study. But then came, alas, that period mentioned when ceasing to be investigators they dwindled into dogmatics, each contending for his own scheme of interpretation: then process ceased. It is as sorrowful as true that for some seventy years or more Brethren have added nothing material to the understanding of prophetic scripture. One who has considered carefully B. W. Newtonís Thoughts on the Apocalypse (ed. 1,1843; ed. 2,1853) on the line of the church passing through the Tribulation, and William Kellyís Lectures on the Revelation (Bible Treasury 1853, 1859; ed. 1,1861) on the opposite side, will gain but little from anything that has since appeared on either side, as far as I know.
The futuristic school of prophecy has hitherto been practically divided between these two schemes, and the discussion has long since reached stalemate. After a hundred years of controversy no approach has been made toward discovering what mistakes in exposition caused divergence. Harmonizing of views would encourage hope that Scripture was becoming understood, but this is as far off as at first. This is regrettable, but it will continue until intolerance on both sides yields to a new humble search for more light, with the readiness to surrender cherished opinions when needful, and to receive new ideas when proved by Scripture. These are deeply searching words by a singularly able teacher, Dr. F. J. A. Hort:
To have become disabled for unlearning is to have become disabled for learning; and when we cease to learn, we let go from us whatever of vivid and vivifying knowledge we have hitherto possessed . . . beliefs worth calling beliefs must be purchased with the sweat of the brow. The easy conclusions which are accepted on borrowed grounds in evasion of the labour and responsibility of thought may or may not be coincident with truth: in either case they have little or no share in its power. (The Way, the Truth, the Life, Intro.)
Does not this last sentence indicate what hitherto has been too largely the case in relation to prophecy, that ready made and long asserted notions have been accepted easily without patient individual examination of the nature, and, what is really vital, of their results, or their warrant in the Word of God? Now the most likely way to break this easy and hurtful habit of mind would be to have free interchanges of thought by those who do seriously study these subjects; for the presentation of fresh ideas, even when these after due examination are not accepted, always stimulates general enquiry and conduces to activity of mind in place of stagnation.
And this is peculiarly important just now, for the spread of education, with easy travel, has introduced in the world a general exchange of ideas and a spirit of enquiry into things formerly accepted passively or remaining quite unconsidered. In the world of thought, as in other realms, authority counts for less than formerly: almost everybody questions almost everything. Christian teachers may not shut their eyes to this factor. Let them not assume that the younger generation are accepting mere assertions however frequently or strongly made. It is not so. One who is sympathetic, instead of dogmatic, meets everywhere a spirit of enquiry as to prophetic and other subjects. It is felt that though a statement may have been made a hundred thousand times through a hundred years it is neither more nor less true than it was the first time it was made, and it is demanded that its truth be demonstrated from Scripture.Teachers must produce this proof, or be discredited (if silently) in the minds of the thoughtful.
The world upheaval following the war has greatly accelerated this spirit of enquiry as to the future, and with its doubts as to the popular scheme. For believers have found themselves plunged into a wild whirl of world affairs, universal in extent, and therefore neither requiring real proof nor admitting of doubt, that the church of God is so peculiarly the object of grace that it would be utterly inconsistent and impossible for it to be subjected to the great Tribulation; it simply must, and as to every member of it, be removed to heaven before that era. Yet under our very eyes hundreds of thousands of believers in Russia alone have been bitterly persecuted, even unto death, and in other lands, nearer to us than Russia, the spirit of persecution is steadily rising. Now that this is not "the Tribulation, the great one" is clear; but that such fearful things have come again upon the saints, and on such a vast scale, forces upon serious minds earnest doubts as to the soundness of the principle mentioned. For of His Church to suffer of late, why should it be inconsistent therewith for others of them to suffer under Antichrist?
This is how minds are working, and beloved brethren really must take to heart that mere asserting and re-asserting of their opinions is not convincing; and still more should they ponder that tacitly to stifle enquiry by a show of authority or by denunciation will but stimulate enquiry, foster dis-satisfaction, and may easily lead to the loss to the assemblies of younger and able men, the very class who, by reason of serious thoughtfulness and independence of mind, will be indispensable to the assemblies when we who are older have laid down our armour.
I conceive this to be a most serious consideration. From reading my own heart I know how easily the tie with our assembly life may be snapped. Under the treatment I have myself received it would have been very natural to have turned away, had not the divine principles for the house of God long before gripped my heart and so loyalty to the Head of the house kept me where those principles are better maintained than elsewhere. But many younger men do not yet perceive the duty of thus adhearing to church principles, or that these are really more important to the cause of Christ than enjoying what may seem easier and wider spheres of ministry. It is unwise, yea, wrong, to put upon their adherence a severer strain than the Word of God demands, by stifling enquiry and suppressing utterance upon matters not vital to the faith. Far more often than many conceive younger Christians, brethren and also sisters, fear to reveal their doubts and questionings on matters prophetic and otherwise from a not unfounded dread of being held suspect as possible heretics. When such reach conclusions different to common opinion either they conceal their views to avoid trouble or readily go where more tolerance obtains, and in either case the assemblies suffer loss and themselves also. Cases have been known over such questions as women praying publicly and whether supernatural "gifts" are now possible. There being no liberty among us, other spheres have profited to our loss.
And on the reverse side, it is easy to believe that this lack of liberty deters some from coming among us who would be a real asset in the ministry of the Word and in church life.
I am very well aware, and very thankful, that by no means all who uphold vigorously the common prophetic views are bitter against other opinions and those who hold them. From many of these I receive much love, and it is deeply appreciated, but this display of Christian affection is in spite of their prophetic beliefs, not a result of them. It would continue were these to change, being independent of them.
And those beloved brethren who are not bitter may well examine their hearts as to whether they are not intolerant, in that they will not suffer other views to be taught, if they can hinder it. Their reasons may seem to them excellent and imperative. They honestly fear that the ark of truth must totter if it would not be supported by their zeal. In this discussion I am aiming to undermine both their reasons and fears, to show that the former are baseless, the latter needless, and that Scripture, reason, and a real edification demand that very freedom of exposition by serious and spiritual teachers which they have refused to tolerate.
Brethren persuaded of the post-tribulation rapture listen in quietness to the popular opinions. For long years others of us likewise have listened in silence to crude and dogmatic assertions that we think regrettable and believe we could easily show to be contrary to the Word; which thing we would attempt to do for general profit but that we fear to provoke fleshly hostility and the hitherto experienced strife that would not be to general profit. What is lacking in the judgment and spirit of so many of our beloved brethren of the common views that they cannot find equal grace and shew like forbearance? It must be plainly affirmed that their school of interpretation has maintained its dominant position for nearly a century,not by weight of argument and sound exposition, but mainly by a subtle species of terrorism, by taking advantage of the fears of the weak, and also of the grace of the strong who have differed from them but who have been unwilling to provoke the unholy dissension that could be expected. This is fact, even if done unconsciously.
Another harmful result to this situation is now being recognized, namely, that the so important topic of the blessed hope is dropping out of the ministry in the assemblies. This is incalculable loss, but it is inevitable unless the whole position be changed. Dogmatists are more or less conscious that they cannot now reply upon the almost obsequious acceptance once rendered to mere assertion. Moreover, some teachers are not so blissfully sure of certain points as once they thought they were, and being undecided in mind they wisely say little. Those who have definite beliefs we judge worthy of statement refrain,either by request or from the fear mentioned of precipitating strife. There seems no way open for restoring the great theme to its just place save granting liberty to every spiritually accredited teacher to express what he believes he has found in the Word, the rest judging of what he says.
A similar but yet wider result is that large portions of the Word are neglected. The more part of the instructions by the Lord Himself; the warnings of Paul as to being disinherited, given to three churches (1 Cor. 6; Gal. 5; Eph. 5); the five lengthy and weighty warnings in Hebrews; the solemn words to the seven churches (Rev. 2 & 3), are examples of these neglected passages. Under the popular scheme such scriptures have no direct message to the child of God, and their value is lost. Those who would so apply them ARE WARNED NOT TO DO SO : it will compel uncomfortable revision of cherished opinions: it will prick conscience; it will provoke strife! With such as myself it is a solemn question how much longer we shall be justified before God, in the interests of a deceptive truce, to keep back a large part of His counsel. It seems to border on dealing deceitfully with His Word to ignore wide tracts of it, for the teaching prominent in the portions just mentioned permeates the whole. By what right do teachers of any one view put this strain upon the faithfulness of teachers of some other view?
Under the same obstruction great themes on which God has been pleased to give much, if scattered, information cannot be opened up to the saints, for these also would compel some revision of accepted notions. The vast and illuminating subject of the temporal judgment of God, including the present judical administration of heaven and earth by angel rulers, is the key to many perplexing passages; the general service of angels; THE STATE AND PLACE OF SOULS BETWEEN DEATH AND RESURRECTION; the time and conditions of the judgment seat of Christ and its issues - are some themes of fascinating interest and of deep practical importance waiting fuller investigation. The prophecies of Daniel and Revelation need more exact harmonizing and will yield yet more instruction. Indeed, because the Word of God is inexhaustible, we ought not to treat it as if we had exhausted it, but ought eagerly to push enquiries forward regardless of what revision of opinions may be involved. But for most persons such research, or at least the exposition of its results, is debarred in the assemblies by influences before mentioned. Only the kingdom of the Devil is advantaged by large parts and themes of the Word being let alone by Christians.
If elder brethren would exercise their authority by repressing bores, talkers of platitudes, and other time wasters, would they not be serving the truth and the saints more effectually than by restraining sober, searching ministry merely because it is not liked by some whose views it challenges or whose consciences it troubles? And ought they not as rulers to have equal regard to the judgment of those also who would earnestly welcome more light upon the neglected portions of Scripture mostly in question, or who are already satisfied that the views opposed are profitable? The number of these increases: is it equitable or loving that their needs, desires, and judgment be ignored and all the preference be granted to one school of thought? The convictions of the latter are no doubt strong and sincere, but so are ours. It is really a question of sufficient graciousness to let their yieldingness be known. To invite them to give up ought of the essential faith of the gospel were unpardonable; to suggest that they surrender freely a position or privilege they never ought to have occupied is but reasonable. The supression of minorities is neither kind, fair, nor wise. In the world it ever produces ultimate disaster; it is still more out of place in the church.
What is needed is for responsible brethren in each assembly to weigh the whole matter before the Lord, and then to declare that in their local sphere there shall be genuine liberty for all sober exposition of Holy Scripture, within the compass of vital truth, and with equal liberty for other men of grace to express their dissent based on the Word; and that restraint be exercised impartially upon any man of any school of thought who ministers injuriously whether by matter or spirit.
The right of elders to restrain ministry is severely limited. According to 1 Tim. 1: 3-5 they are to be dealt with who do not dispense to the saints that which increases faith, but who rather give heed to myths and endless genealogies, such topics as merely rise insoluble and unprofitable questions. But, on the contrary, no right is conferred to refuse what promotes love, a good conscience, and faith, for this is the precise end of ministry. According to Titus 1: 10-16 the mouths are to be stopped of such as will not bow to rule and encourage it, but are unruly; who overthrew whole houses; and who do this for the sake of financial gain. These are to be reproved sharply, yet not simply to silence them, but in the hope that, accepting reproof, they may become sound in faith, in which case they will be useful to the church.
It will be impossible to bring under such scriptures sober, helpful, God-qualified teachers simply because their views upon prophecy, rewards, chastisements, not to say lesser themes, do not coincide with this or that school of interpretation which happens to be popular. Therefore any such restraint is beyond the powers conferred by the Lord upon the rulers of His house.
This brings up the serious issue that such unauthorized restraint is directed finally AGAINST THE SPIRIT OF GOD HIMSELF, acting for the Lord. If this be considered narrowly it will be seen that, over a lengthy period, that every liberty of the Spirit in the supply and control of ministry which has been a chief theme and feature of our teaching, in practice has been largely curtailed and denied by unwarranted restrictions being imposed upon His servants.
Of late this curtailment has been vastly extended by the general closing of platforms to all but invited speakers. In meetings left open elders have failed in what is their duty, even to restrain vain talkers, while ready to restrain godly men with whom the Lord has not given them power to deal. In consequence the latter are often silent, and the former are bold to exhibit their emptiness, both things tending to the poverty of ministry and the impoverishment of saints.
This has led many to the unscriptural plan of the world, the arranging of ministry, involving the thwarting of the very testimony that Christian gatherings were designed to give to the world, that "God is among you of a truth" actually ordering and empowering in His own house.From this restraining of the Spirit of God it follows inevitably that churches become spiritually poorer, even though oft- times congratulating themselves that they are rich, merely because they are pleased to be pleased with the ministry they get, since it is of their own choice. It is true that God withdraws from His temple reluctantly, slowly, by stages (Ezek. 9: 3; 11: 22, 23), and that so long as He lingers a measure of His glory is seen, a measure of blessing is experienced; but if the glory is waning we may be sure that there will presently be night; if the Spirit is persistently grieved He will at last be quenched; and finally (Rev. 3; 20) the Lord will be found OUTSIDE a door closed against Him by those who nevertheless will cry, The people of the Lord are we.
We rejoice rightly in much still found in the assemblies that is of Himself and reveals His presence and grace; yet as a whole we are distinctly not what once we were in holiness and spiritual energy. Factors in this declension, germane to the topic discussed, are here suggested.Will they be considered calmly and impartially? Will any be convinced? And will these then be found faithful enough to Christ and His church TO ACT UPON THEIR CONVICTIONS? The good Lord grant it, for His name and gloryís sake, for the matter is urgent.
And what is the urgency? Were it a young man writing this appeal for the New Testament liberty there would not fail some to suggest he was merely anxious to air his pet opinions or had an eye to his opportunities to preach and to his income. But for myself every year now diminishes the importance of this liberty of ministry. With forty-five years of public service behind, the years ahead must be far fewer. Already I cannot attempt what I did, and far more doors are open than I can enter. The urgency arises from the general condition and prospects of the people of God, on grounds here indicated.
Though the end days, as they are described in Scripture, are not yet come, they are nearer than they were. At any rate, the present time is perilous enough to spiritual and moral life to require a far more powerful stimulus to devotion and warning against defection than has been provided by the view of the future so long dominant. In the tranquil period some can remember it was easy enough to talk smoothly about "perilous times" and "end days" and "great tribulation," and for teachers to assure their souls and their hearers that there was not the least ground for personal concern, because the church entire was certain to be removed to heaven before those dread days could set in. But this complacent outlook does not stir the soul into flame, nor brace the nerves to faithfulness and suffering in a period of world upheaval. With nations full of foreboding, and of consequent suspicion against each other, with military service sternly compulsory in most lands, with governments more and more first regulating and then suppressing pure Christianity, some more powerful and deep-acting tonic is required.
What the Church of God now needs imperatively is men able to show fearlessly what the Word of God teaches as to the future that will guide life through difficulties and dangers, perplexities and perils; also how to gain strength to be faithful and holy, and what will be the heavenly recompense; and able to show also what will be the sorrowful penalties the Christian must face if unfaithful to Christ and the word of His patience. But this demands close scrutiny of the Word of truth free from the bias and fetters of preconceived schemes of interpretation. It calls for zeal and courage, and the making known of the results demands liberty of utterance, if saints are to profit by it, It is for this God-granted liberty that appeal is here made.
Readers of church history know that all too many God-wrought movements have sooner or later been paralyzed by one and the same means. The fresh light and truth gained from Scripture at the first, the walking in which brought liberty and quickening, is presently systematized into a creed or a scheme of teaching; zealous adherents of this scheme will allow no deviation from it: it becomes the test of orthodoxy in that sphere; liberty is crushed, progress ceases, movement stops, paralysis and death ensue. Is this to find another exemplincation in the assemblies of Open Brethren? It will, unless the change comes that is here urged, for the process has long set in. The maintaining of popular orthodoxy may prove the death of spirituality. Free movement is essential to health. Only death is motionless. That we may be preserved from this state is my heartís earnest desire, and therefore am I bold to put the foregoing considerations before you and your brethren, assured of their sincere and sympathetic attention. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
Yours in His love,
G. H. LANG.
[ He will give the strength to resist any opposition that may come. It is forbearance when opposed that commends the truth professed .]