One grave practical lack which Mr. Müller sought to remedy was ignorance of those deeper truths of the Word which relate to the power and presence of the Holy Spirit of God in the church, and to the ministry of saints, one to another, as fellow members in the body of Christ, and as those to whom that same Spirit divides severally, as he will, spiritual gifts for service. As a natural result of being untaught in these important practical matters, believers’ meetings had proved rather opportunities for unprofitable talk than godly edifying which is in faith. The only hope of meeting such errors and supplying such lack lay in faithful Scripture teaching, and he undertook for a time to act as the sole teacher in these gatherings...Afterward, when there seemed to be among the brethren proper apprehension of vital spiritual truths,...he resumed his place as simply a brother among fellow believers, all of whom had liberty to teach as the Spirit might lead and guide...With strong emphasis he dwelt upon the presiding presence of the Blessed Spirit in all assemblies of saints, and upon the duty and privilege of leaving the whole conduct of such assemblies to His divine ordering; and in perfect accord with such teaching he showed that the Holy Spirit, if left free to administer all things, would lead such brethren to speak at such times and on such themes as He might please.
---from “George Müller of Bristol” by Arthur T. Pierson
We need to talk. To one another. In the church. On Sunday morning. Not only on Sunday morning, but first and foremost on Sunday morning.
True, the New Testament makes stipulations for speaking in the assembly. I will not ignore these. When I write “we need to talk” I mean the kind of talking consistent with New Testament teaching.
Now when I say “in the church,” I mean “in the assembly of the saints.” I do not mean the building. If “in the church” means “in the building,” why, the speaking gifts exercised in Sunday school, in various church ministries, “after church,” in the coffee shop, or at home, is all that is necessary for obedience to the Lord’s command to exercise one’s gift.
Of course the speaking gifts should be exercised in all those places. “I believe, therefore I have spoken.” But what is the primary meeting of the church? It is “the whole church come together in one place,” I Cor. 14:23. Are we to believe that the primary meeting of the church is the one place where the speaking gifts are excluded, save for one man’s?
So who is precluding the exercise of the speaking gifts in the assemblies? Is it the Lord? Or is it men? It is men. I don’t mean a few men, either. There is no conspiracy here. It is supporters of the clergy system that are responsible for the suppression of speaking gifts in the assemblies. And who are the supporters of the clergy system? They are the “clergy” and the “laity.” For there is most assuredly no clergy system without the willing acquiescence of “the people,” or laity.
The vignette, above, from Mr. Müller’s life bears on everything I have to say in this book. My hope is that the reader will regularly recall the picture painted by Mr. Pierson, for it is filled with sound theology, in particular that area of doctrine called ecclesiology. The picture painted above indicates 1) the centrality of the Spirit in leading and ordering the church meeting, 2) the speaking gifts exercised in the assembly, 3) the role of the teacher in perfecting saints for the work of the ministry, 4) the function of pastors in the churches, and 5) a true definition of ministry or service. Mr. Müller acted first as a teacher and, later, in “resum(ing) his place as simply a brother among fellow believers,” he assumed a pastoral role. This accurately reflects the functions of teaching and pastoring in the churches. Notice how compatible these functions are with the free ministry of the Spirit in and through the brethren. This ministry of the Spirit is the very practical manifestation of the Headship of Jesus Christ over His church. Christ is not missing in the church pictured above. He is in the midst of them, and He is Head of this church not only nominally but practically and effectively.
Christians accustomed to the reigning church traditions will suspect that believers’ meetings operating after the fashion indicated by Mr. Pierson will “prove rather opportunities for unprofitable talk,” as Mr. Müller encountered. But that is simply proof that Christians, 1) have never been taught the doctrine of the church, i.e., its operation and functioning as a body, and 2) have not grown to spiritual maturity under the reigning order of things. The two problems are closely related, as we will see.
A note about Mr. Müller. He was and is highly renowned for his care of orphans in nineteenth century England. He was known and loved for his godliness and humility, but most of all for his faith that God would supply his orphans’ needs. What is far less widely known, however, is that Mr. Müller was a principle in a mighty work of the Lord in nineteenth century England, Europe, and, indeed, the world called the Brethren movement.
The Plymouth Brethren, a group principally associated with John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), was in reality part of a larger work of the Holy Spirit not limited to the Brethren. However the Brethren were in their day the most famous proponents of a godly separation from the corruptions of Anglican ecclesiasticism and clericalism.
Sadly, not long after their beginnings the Brethren were beset by doctrinal controversy, with Mr. Müller’s church in the center of it. However I am not interested in the controversy (at least not for the sake of this book) but rather would only point out that the “church truths,” as the Brethren called them, argued for in Part III of this book are the very New Testament teachings held by Müller, Henry Craik (Müller’s lifelong friend and a teacher and elder in their church in Bristol, England), by Anthony Norris Groves (1795-1853), by E.H. Broadbent (1861-1945), and by G.H. Lang (1874-1958), Brethren all.
In other words I am not inventing the wheel here. If the reader dislikes my doctrines, he or she dislikes their doctrines. This of course does not vindicate either of us. But I hope you will compare what I write against the Word of God, as the noble Bereans did with Paul.
A reasonable question the reader may have is, if men like Müller, Craik, et al. could not make these doctrines “stick,” is it because the doctrines were false? But you will need to read the book in order to decide.
Please do not accuse me of wide-eyed idealism. “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” Those of you familiar with the history of the Brethren may think to yourselves, “it didn’t work for them.” But it did work for some of them, at least well into the twentieth century. This is another conceit in Christendom: churches and sects that build buildings “live on” long after their lampstands have been removed by the Lord. “(These) have a name that they live, and are dead.” By contrast, churches that die out after a period of time, we like to say “they didn’t work.” But Jesus is the One who builds His church, when He will and where He pleases, and it has nothing to do with buildings and grounds and parking lots. He had nowhere to lay His head, and yet He did mighty works!
If we only do things because “they work,” why, that is called utilitarianism; it is antithetical to faith. By faith we do what is commanded, and that is all.
I understand very well that it is hard to “keep” the kind of church ecclesiology I argue for in these pages. But that is in part because the true church is an organism, not an organization. It is harder to keep an organism alive than it is an organization. Concerning the spiritual life and death of churches the Scotsman James Gall (1808-1895) wrote,
“The Levitical system, with its external ordinances and formulated rites, bears the same relation to the New Testament system, as exhibited in Scripture, that the crustacean forms of life bear to the vertebrate. They are both Christian, but the Levitical Christianity is sheathed in an outer crust of gaudy ceremonials and ritualistic performances, which enable men to be very religious without even professing to be pure in heart; and as long as they are obedient to the ceremonial law, they are supposed to have fulfilled its demands. Christianity and the house churches belong to a higher type of religion than Judaism and the temple, in the same sense that vertebrate animals belong to a higher type of life than the crustaceans. The crab, for example, wears its skeleton on the outside as an external casing, whereas the vertebrate animals have their skeleton within. The consequence is, that when a vertebrate animal dies it leaves only a few bones behind, having little resemblance to the original form; but when a crustacean dies there is no change in its outward form---so far as that is concerned, life and death make little difference. The dead crab is just as plump and perfect looking as it was when it was alive. So did God intend for the Levitical system to be independent of life as far as form was concerned. It had no life in itself, and was not intended to have any, because its only purpose was to present to the bodily eye an outward and visible representation of something else which was to take its place.
“The Christian church, on the contrary, belongs not to the crustacean, but to the vertebrate type of life. It has no rigid crust of outward forms, which makes it independent of spiritual life and, therefore, vitality is essential not only to its comeliness, but to its very existence.”
My book is in three parts. The first part is historical, the second polemical, and the third ecclesiological. I pray the reader will come to understand (if he or she hasn’t yet) that the argument for speaking gifts in the assembly does not exist in a theological vacuum but is supported by all the elements of church truth and Christian ministry taught and modeled in the New Testament. Thus, Part III.
All praise, glory, and honor to God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who save everyone who believes on the name of Jesus from the wrath to come and unto eternal joy, peace, and righteousness in heaven, forever.
Deep River, Iowa USA