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Discipline of the Church at the Metropolitan Tabernacle
The Sword & Trowel (Feb. 1869, pp. 198-206)
THE object of this paper is to direct attention to the discipline of our churches as distinguished from their creeds and constitution, thus contributing, it may be hoped, some assistance to the discussion of the best methods for securing and maintaining purity and piety within the gates of our Zion.
The subject of the paper is the discipline of the church at the Metropolitan Tabernacle. This particular example has been selected because with it the writer is more familiar than with any other. It is moreover the discipline of one of our oldest churches, and not the least successful of them, and it has been thought that there are elements of peculiar interest connected with it which it would be superfluous to enumerate.
We are anxious to disclaim, at the outset, any pretensions to perfection in our methods of action we have found them work best for ourselves hitherto, but we are always anxious to find out a more excellent way. Our plans have been the outgrowth of necessity, not of theory; they were not sketched on paper and then carried out as an experiment, but the circumstances of the church drove us to our present methods, and we hope we have seen a line of scriptural precedent justifying our obedience to providential indications. We should regret exceedingly if for a moment it were supposed that we would recommend absolute uniformity in the methods of discipline adopted by churches; but to our minds thus much is clear, that the congregational churches both Baptist and Paedobaptist, have gone as far in the direction of diversity as possible, and weakness rather than strength has been the result. That no room should be left for the different peculiarities of pastor and people, but all be bound to one undeviating standard of action, would be to cramp, and not to benefit; but, on the other hand, that so few points of agreement should be accepted as a common basis of action, sustaining a sense of confidence in each others discipline, is little short of a calamity, Mutual confidence arising from known adequate, though it may be at times dissimilar courses of action, leading up to one result, must be a source of blessing to any denomination; and at present we frankly admit, as the result of a somewhat wide observation of the methods of receiving, and the all but uniform want of method in removing names from our church rolls, we have but small faith in ecclesiastical statistics, and what is worse, a limited confidence in letters of commendation from our churches. That we may all find room forimprovement is undoubted, and that we may at once make the discovery and act upon it, is the object and prayer of the writer of this paper.
We remark at once that at the Tabernacle we have no written code of laws but the Book of Inspiration, and we unhesitatingly assert that all such printed rules as some have desired, and others adopted, are only ferrets at the best of times, and snares and traps in periods of dispute and difficulty. We have faith in sanctified common sense, resulting from an application to the source of all wisdom by prayer and reading of the word. If churches would only act with the prudence of any assembly of mercantile men, much evil would be averted, and more good secured. Acting in things temporal after a truly business principle, and in things spiritual as Gods word and Spirit dictate, no formal system of rules, in our opinion, will ever be required. Certain recognized courses of procedure, from which, without cause assigned, no deviation shall be made, are certainly necessary for mutual cooperation and peace in any church; but for emergencies, special action should be adopted to suit the exigencies of the case, and no rules or traditions must forbid the course which wisdom suggests, even though it should be contrary to all the precedents of the previous history of the church. A general understanding of leading principles, and an elastic interpretation of them as cases may require, will be all the rule outside of the Scripture required in churches where confidence abounds between pastors, officers, and members; if this be wanting, no rules, human or divine, can make them work harmoniously together. We must have faith in each others intentions and integrity, or we shall loosen the pins of church action, and all will lapse into confusion and conflict.
I. CHURCH OFFICERS
Principles of action however clear, and methods of procedure however established by custom, will be of little avail if they be not sustained by a vigorous executive. Amongst the officers of the church, foremost stands the pastor, who, though its servant, is so to rule, guide, and discipline it as God shall help and direct by his Holy Spirit. In connection with the church at the Tabernacle two such officers are now laboring. It is a trite remark that if two men ride a horse one must sit behind, and he who is in the front must hold the reins and drive. Co-pastorships have been sources of discomfort or blessing as this principle has been understood. Wherever it may have been disregarded, it is not (by the grace of God) likely to be so in the case in hand. Where one of the two brothers has been so instrumental in creating the necessity for additional help, from the very fullness of blessing resulting from his labors; and is, moreover, so superior in talent, influence, and power, it is a privilege to follow in the order of nature and birth which God, from the first, had evidently designed. The discipline of the church thus emanates from a common center, acting through recognized division of labor. All meetings and institutions are subject to the influence, and when required, to the action of the Pastorate. It would be, at least, unseemly to have a hydra-headed band of Christians. Sunday-school, college, orphanage, almshouses, psalmody, are all under the supervision of a common headship, so as to prevent almost inevitable confusion, if not conflict, as the result of divided action. The leader of the church should surely lead the churchs work. Strife without measure has arisen from rival authorities disputing about the boundaries of their little empires. The spirit of peace has kept us from this evil, but a judicious arrangement has been helpful in producing the result. There are still Diotrephes in the present age men loving to have the pre-eminence but it is the duty of the minister to magnify his office, and rule even these, which is best done not by assertions of power or complaints of want of influence, but by possessing such personal weight of piety and prudence, zeal, godliness, gentleness, and forbearance, as will inevitably place him in the front in course of time. In the long run, the measure of any mans power and influence is the measure in which he deserves to possess them; and no man is entitled to expect any more. It is quite certain that no efforts to assert official dignity, when sound judgment and weight of character are wanting, will ever result in anything short of failure and contempt. We have known some whose claims for deference and respect were in the inverse ratio to their deserts; and the only outgrowth of their priestlyism was to ruin and break up every church they attempted to guide and control. How much we need the wisdom of the serpent with the harmlessness of the dove! How gently, as a nurse among her children, should the pastor behave himself! With what unassuming brotherly love, and paternal wisdom, should he hold intercourse with his people! True pastors must be both made and born; and day by day must they be sustained, or their office will be a shame to themselves and a burden to their flocks. From this may the Lord keep his servants evermore.
Deacons and Elders. After the pastor, and laboring by his side, we need brethren qualified of God to be helpers of our joy. In this church, two offices distinct in main points, though often coincident in others, are recognized, and as we think, with both Scripture and common sense upon our side. It may and does often happen that the man of judgment, prudent in counsel, and skilled in money matters, is not gifted with speech so as to lead devotional exercises in the church or prayer-meeting, or beside the bed of sickness, or in the house of mourning. A good man for things temporal, in dealing with worldly matters, may not be an elder apt to teach and to exhort. On the other hand, a man may have all the qualifications of an elder, but be lacking in such abilities as are required for the serving of tables, the disposing of finances, and the securing of needed funds for the church.
Our deacons, nine in number, are elected by the church, at the suggestion of the pastor, after consultation with the previously elected deacons. It is open to any member to nominate whom he pleases at such an election, but in no case has the recommendation of the pastor and deacons been dissented from, for the brethren nominated were in every way called and qualified of the Lord. They are chosen for life; this having been the usual custom in such cases; and there being no strong reason for a change in the rule. Their duties are to care for the ministry, and help the poor of the church, to regulate the finances and take charge of the churchs property, seeing to the order and comfort of all worshipping in the place. The work is divided so as to secure the services of all, and prevent the neglect of anything through uncertainty as to the person responsible for its performance. One honored brother is general treasurer, and has been so for many years long may he be spared to us; another takes all out-door work, repairs of the exterior, keeping the gates, appointing doorkeepers, etc.; another has all indoor repairs; while others watch over the interests of the new churches which are springing from our loins; and one brother as a good steward sees to the arrangement and provision of the weekly communion, and the elements required for the Lords table; thus with a common council we have separate duties. At every remembrance of these brethren we thank God. Some ministers have found their trials in their deacons; it is but right to say that we find in them our greatest comfort, and we earnestly desire that every church should share in an equal blessing.
Elders. Our eldership, now sustained by twenty-six brethren, is a source of much blessing to our church. Without the efficient and self-denying labors of the elders, we should never be able to supervise our huge church, containing at the close of the year 1868, 3,860 members; and from which, under the present pastor, about an equal number have gone to the church triumphant, or to other parts of the church militant.
The elders are re-elected annually, but usually continue for life in their office; fresh elders are proposed by the pastor to the already elected elders, and after some time has been given for thought, the subject of the propriety of their election is discussed at an elders meeting, and if recommended with general unanimity, the names are then laid before the church by the pastor, and after opportunity given for the expression of opinion, the vote of the church is taken. We offer no opinion here as to other methods of electing church officers, but we will add that no other plan commends itself so much to our judgment; no other plan is so safe for our church, or so likely to procure good officers. No other plan is so helpful to the pastor, who is most concerned in the choice, having to work with those selected; and no other plan as we can see will enable him so faithfully to discharge his office of guide and shepherd, in one of the most critical periods of the churchs history. Timidity here is a crime, and the affectation of modesty in not wishing to influence the church is to our mind a dereliction of duty. A church possessed of unlimited liberty of action, needs, for the sake of its junior and less instructed members, to be directed in its choice of officers the best men to do it are the pastor and officers already tried and proved, and the fear of giving offense seems to us but the fear of man which bringeth a snare. To the elders is committed the spiritual oversight of the church, and such of its concerns as are not assigned to the deacons nor belong to the preacher. The seeing of inquirers, the visiting of candidates for church membership, the seeking out of absentees, the caring for the sick and troubled, the conducting of prayer-meetings, catechumen and Bible-classes for the young men these and other needed offices our brethren the elders discharge for the church. One elder is maintained by the church for the especial purpose of visiting our sick poor, and looking after the church-roll, that this may be done regularly and efficiently. As a whole we cheerfully bear our testimony to the beneficial working of the system of deaconate and eldership as distinct offices. Both works are in a few cases performed by the same person, but the existence of the two bodies of men is in a thousand ways a great assistance to good government.
II. CHURCH MEMBERSHIP
All persons anxious to join our church are requested to apply personally upon any Wednesday evening, between six and nine oclock, to the elders, two or more of whom attend in rotation every week for the purpose of seeing inquirers. When satisfied, the case is entered by the elder in one of a set of books provided for the purpose, and a card is given bearing a corresponding number to the page of the book in which particulars of the candidates experience are recorded. Once a month, or oftener when required, the junior pastor appoints a day to see the persons thus approved of by the elders. If the pastor is satisfied, he nominates an elder or church member as visitor, and at the next church meeting asks the church to send him to enquire as to the moral character and repute of the candidate. If the visitor be satisfied he requests the candidate to attend with him at the following or next convenient church meeting, to come before the church and reply to such questions as may be put from the chair, mainly with a view to elicit expressions of his trust in the Lord Jesus, and hope of salvation through his blood, and any such facts of his spiritual history as may convince the church of the genuineness of the case. We have found this a means of grace and a rich blessing. None need apprehend that modesty is outraged, or timidity appalled by the test thus applied. We have never yet found it tend to keep members out of our midst, while we have known it of service in detecting a mistake or satisfying a doubt previously entertained. We deny that it keeps away any worth having. Surely if their Christianity cannot stand before a body of believers, and speak amongst loving sympathizing hearts, it is as well to ask if it be the cross-bearing public confessing faith of the Bible? This is no matter of flesh and blood, but of faith and grace, and we should be sorry to give place to the weakness and shrinking of the flesh, so as to insult the omnipotence of grace, by deeming it unable to endure so much as the telling in the gates of Zion what great things God has done for the soul. Of course, the system may be, and has been, abused, but we decline to recognize any argument drawn from the abuse of what we use lawfully. It need not be an offense to any, and it will be an immense blessing to that church which watches for souls, and rejoices over one repenting sinner more than over ninety and nine just persons which need no repentance. After the statement before the church, the candidate withdraws, the visitor gives in his report, and the vote of the church is taken; when the candidate has professed his faith by immersion, which is administered by the junior pastor after a week-day service, he is received by the pastor at the first monthly communion, when the right hand of fellowship is given to him in the name of the church, and his name is entered on the roll of members. A communion card is furnished, divided by perforation into twelve numbered parts, one of which is to be delivered every month at the communion, which is held every Lords-day; the tickets are checked upon the register, and thus show the attendance of each member at the communion. If a member is absent more than three months without any known cause, the elder in whose district he resides is requested to visit him, and send in a report on a printed form which is given him; or if the residence be distant, a letter is written, a record of such visit or letter being retained. When a case for discipline presents itself, it is brought before the elders, who appoint one of their number to visit and report; if the matter demands action beyond caution and advice, we lay it before the church, and recommend the course of procedure to be adopted, whether censure or excommunication.
In dealing with such as are members of other churches, we have been by sad experience compelled to exercise more caution than at first seemed needful. The plan we adopt is to have the person seen by an elder, who enters particulars in the transfer book. If there appears to be any difficulty, an interview is arranged with one of the pastors, who investigates the case on its own merits, as alas! he has discovered that membership with some churches is not always a guarantee even of morality. Some churches retain a name upon their books for years after the person has ceased to commune; and frequently when he has passed away from all know]edge of or connection with the church, it will nevertheless grant a transfer as if all were satisfactory. We record this with mingled shame and sorrow. When the individual has thus given evidence of fitness, so far as we can judge, a dismissal is applied for in the usual way on a form prepared the reply is laid before the church, any information necessary is added, and the vote of the church taken. When, in the order of Gods providence, any of our number are removed from us, and are not able to attend, a certificate is given for three, six, or twelve months, which must then be renewed, and a report of the reason for renewal given, or the membership will lapse, unless in special cases. We much prefer commending our brethren to the fellowship of other churches, where they may be of service, than to have them linger out a merely nominal connection with us. We have thus sent from us 166 in the course of last year, we hope to the strengthening of the churches and the spread of the truth. On receipt of application from any church for a transfer, the letter is read to the church, with the detailed account from our books, giving a brief but complete history of the case, when and how received, the attendance of the person while a member with us, and reasons for seeking removal. The church is then advised to authorize the usual letter of dismission to be sent.
In all our business the aim is to have everything done openly and above-board, so that no one may complain of the existence of a clique, or the suppression of the true state of affairs. We occasionally ask the unquestioning confidence of the church in its officers in cases delicate and undesirable to be published, but otherwise we consult the church in everything, and report progress as often as possible in all matters still pending and unsettled. Nothing, we are persuaded, is so sure to create suspicion and destroy confidence as attempts at secret diplomacy, or mere official action.
When details of cases under discipline are kept from the church, the fact is openly stated, and leave asked for the maintenance of such public reticence; while any member is informed, that if dissatisfied, the pastor will give him the reasons why the elders have advised the removal of the offender, and their motive in not giving details of the sin. When it would be for the injury of good morals, or expose the pastor to a suit-at-law, the officers ask the confidence of the church, and request it to adopt their verdict in the case without hearing detailed information; this is cheerfully accorded in every case, and much evil thus averted.
All money matters are audited by unofficial brethren selected by the church, and the accounts read and books produced at the annual church meeting, when all the members endeavor to be present. All minutes of church meetings, deacons and elders courts, are entered, and confirmed at the following meeting. Unless notice is previously given, no business, as a rule, is entertained but what emanates from the chair, or is sent up from an elders or deacons session; though this custom is departed from if any manifest benefit is to be derived from so doing, and no one challenges the motion as irregular.