Archive for the ‘Gathered Church Ecclesiology’ Category

​”The rise of sectarianism that has accompanied the Protestant movement is a dark and negative phenomenon. It manifested itself already at the beginning of the Reformation, but it has never flourished as it has in our age. New church after new church is established. In England there are already more than two hundred sects. In America they are innumerable. The differences have become so many and so insignificant that one cannot keep track of them. There are even voices arguing for a new discipline in theology itself devoted to the comparative history of church confessions. What is even more serious is that this sectarianism leads to the erosion and disappearance of church consciousness. There is no longer an awareness of the difference between the church and a voluntary association. The sense that separation from the church is a sin has all but disappeared. One leaves a church or joins it rather casually. When something or other in a church no longer satisfies us, we look for another without any pangs of conscience. The decisive factor turns out to be our taste. Exercise of discipline thus becomes virtually impossible; it loses its very character. What preacher is left who dares, in good conscience, except perhaps in extremely rare instances, to use the form for excommunication? The worst result of all this is that by breaking the unity of doctrine and the church, Christians do violence to the communion of saints, deprive themselves of the Spirit’s gifts of grace, by which  other believers labor to build up the saints, shut themselves up in their own circle, promote spiritual pride, strengthen Rome, and give the world occasion for scorn and mockery.”

-Herman Bavinck, “The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church”

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“Ministers are the fishers of men; and the effect of an endowment is to lengthen their line, and enable them to reach downward to the lowest gradations of the commonwealth. The voluntaries are a kind of fly-fishers—whose operations do not reach to the muddy bottoms, to those depths and those fastnesses of society, which to them are inaccessible. And a chapel of ease, give it any ecclesiastical organization you like, is just such a voluntary [entity]. Nominally, you may give it the title of an established church; but you will never give it the power or the properties of an established church without an endowment” (Works 18:101-102)

In this quote, Chalmers is contending within his historical situation for the full inclusion of “chapels of ease” (more or less preaching stations) within the established Church of Scotland. But what is crucial, he argues, is that they should be territorial, assigned to focus pastorally and evangelistically on one defined neighborhood, and endowed, so that they do not have to be beholden to the more privileged classes attending from beyond their ‘parish.’ Without these two pillars, the ability to minister to all, both rich and poor, becomes extremely difficult. In fact, it becomes impossible when contemplated as a system for the entire nation, which is what an establishment is built to guarantee. In the end, you are back to the religious marketplace, and those who lack “wealth and will” are left to sink to the bottom.

[image source]

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Funny, but damningly true. Again, reinforcement that Adam Smith was dead wrong about leaving religion purely to market forces.

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Glasgow_map_1878“Now the specific business which we would like to put into the hands of a Christian minister is, not that he should fill his church any how – that he may do by the superior attractiveness of his preaching, at the expense of previous congregations, and without any movement in advance on the practical heathenism of the community: But what we want is, to place his church in the middle of such a territory as we have now specified and to lay upon him a task, for the accomplishment of which we should allow him to the labour and preference of a whole lifetime; not to fill his church any how, but to fill this church out of that district. We should give him the charge over head, of one and all of its families; and tell him, that, instead of seeking hearers from without, he should so shape and regulate his movements, that, as far as possible, his church-room might all be taken up by hearers from within. It is this peculiar relation between his church, and its contiguous households, all placed within certain geographical limits, that distinguishes him from the others as a territorial minister.”

– Thomas Chalmers

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In the following quote, Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) is urging that the Church of Scotland in his day stick to its parish principles, that is, attaching a church to a district, charging its minister to evangelize it, and giving preference to its residents in seating during the services.  A church should be a local, or a ‘territorial’ church.  It should not operate on the law of supply and demand, thus drawing any and all irrespective of residence.  When it does, as Chalmers here points out, it occasions the worst in those who are already religious, fostering a culture of religious fastidiousness – and church-hopping.

Without a territorial arrangement, the “population” of the parish “might still abide in a state of unmoved heathenism; and the chapel congregation, instead of being formed or recruited out of their families, will be drawn very much at the expense of previous congregations, from that class of the community whose habits of church-going are not only already established, but may be said to have been refined into fastidiousness; to whom change is luxury, and who, ever agog on the impulse of novelty, are, in fact, the deadliest adversaries of that territorial system, wherein the great strength of our establishment lies” (Collected Works 16:184).

Again, Chalmers exposes the commercialization of religion that has only grown from embryo to full monster.

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“The sounder part of the Scottish nation know what good their ancestors derived from their Church, and feel how deeply the living generation is indebted to it. . . . Visionary notions have in all ages been afloat upon the subject of best providing for the clergy; notions which have been sincerely entertained by good men, with a view to the improvement of that order, and eagerly caught at and dwelt upon by the designing, for its degradation and disparagement. Some are beguiled by what they call the Voluntary system, not seeing (what stares one in the face at the very threshold) that they who stand in most need of religious instruction are unconscious of the want, and therefore cannot reasonably be expected to make any sacrifices in order to supply it. Will the licentious, the sensual, and the depraved, take from the means of their gratifications and pursuits, to support a discipline that cannot advance without uprooting the trees that bear the fruit which they devour so greedily?  Will they pay the price of that seed whose harvest is to be reaped in an invisible world?  A Voluntary system for the religious exigencies of a people numerous and circumstanced as we are! Not more absurd would it be to expect that a knot of boys should draw upon the pittance of their pocket-money to build schools, or out of the abundance of their discretion be able to select fit masters to teach and keep them in order! Some, who clearly perceive the incompetence and folly of such a scheme for the agricultural part of the people, nevertheless think it feasible in large towns, where the rich might subscribe for the religious instruction of the poor. Alas! they know little of the thick darkness that spreads over the streets and alleys of our large towns. The parish of Lambeth, a few years since, contained not mora than one church, and three or four small proprietary chapels, while Dissenting chapels, of every denomination, were still more scantily found there; yet the inhabitants of the parish amounted at that time to upwards of 50,000. Were the parish church and the chapels of the Establishment existing there an impediment to the spread of the Gospel among that mass of people?  Who shall dare to say so?  But if any one, in the face of the fact which has just been stated, and in opposition to authentic reports to the same effect from various other quarters, should still contend that a Voluntary system is sufficient for the spread and maintenance of religion, we would ask, What kind of religion?  Wherein would it differ, among the many, from deplorable fanaticism?

“For the preservation of the Church Establishment, all men, whether they belong to it or not, could they perceive their own interest, would be strenuous; but how inadequate are its provisions for the needs of the country!  and how much is it to be regretted that, while its zealous friends yield to alarms on account of the hostility of Dissent, they should so much overrate the danger to be apprehended from that quarter, and almost overlook the fact that hundreds of thousands of our fellow-countrymen, though formally and nominally of the Church of England, never enter her places of worship, neither have they communication with her ministers!  This deplorable state of things was partly produced by a decay of zeal among the rich and influential, and partly by a want of due expansive power in the constitution of the Establishment as regulated by law.  Private benefactors in their efforts to build and endow churches have been frustrated, or too much impeded, by legal obstacles; these, where they are unreasonable or unfitted for the times, ought to be removed; and, keeping clear of intolerance and injustice, means should be taken to render the presence and powers of the Church commensurate with the wants of a shifting and still increasing population” (Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, 606, 607).

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Below are (yet) a few more extracts from William Smith’s Endowed Territorial Work (1875). Smith certainly was on to something in his critique of the so-called American success story, allegedly vindicating religious Voluntaryism. From a confessionally Reformed standpoint, time seems only to have further confirmed his thesis. With Christianity subordinated to the laws of supply and demand, populism has compromised ministerial fidelity and has accelerated the decay of orthodoxy.

As I dwell on it, is there really a twofold problem, traceable to something other than gold standard Reformational thought?  Our spiritual fathers fought for biblical freedoms, not absolute ones. They preached freedom from papal tyranny, freedom from slavery to human traditions, freedom to form a private judgment on the letter of Scripture. But there was a trajectory of freedom that pushed further still – the Enlightenment. That freedom knew no restraints, because it was not ultimately tethered to any authority besides its own.

Within the pale of Protestantism, it seems to me that this non-Reformational lust for human autonomy reared its ugly head in the walls of the confessing Church. That was Arminianism. While Dort repressed it for a time, it lived on, and in America it burst into open flame in the ministry of Charles Grandison Finney.

At the same time, a more seemingly innocuous manifestation of Enlightenment freedom was gaining ground in Reformed communions. That was Voluntaryism. What was deceptive about that system was perhaps its frequent affiliation with theological Calvinism. No free will soteriologically, but free choice ecclesiastically. Interestingly, American Presbyterians as early as 1729 embraced Voluntaryism, before it even became a major force in British evangelicalism. Great men, too – some of them my heroes. But Smith’s reflections here, plus more than a century’s worth of all too painful confirmation, draws me to the conclusion that a major fault in American Christianity lies in this twofold concession of ground to the Enlightenment by the sons of the Reformation.

Read this, and see what you think.

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“Dr Magee, formerly Rector of Enniskillen, now Bishop of Peterborough, in his trenchant treatise on the Voluntary system, proves with reference to the current fables of its success in the great Western world, that out of a total of 42,359 churches, there were no fewer than 12,829 without any settled pastoral ministry,— that out of a population of twenty-seven millions, more than a third were not even under the influence of pure Christianity, and much less than a sixth were members of any pure Christian Church, — that upwards of five millions either make no profession of any religion whatever, or are open and avowed infidels — that over and above these, another million connected with Mormonism, Spiritualism, or other such monstrous abortions, cannot be regarded as Christians at all—that not less than one hundred different denominations, some of them calling themselves by the most ridiculous names, and glorying in the most absurd peculiarities of faith and practice, are enumerated in the American Census—that the occupants of the pews exert the most degrading and pernicious influence on the occupants of the pulpits, who dare not, as they value their salaries or the place they fill, denounce national sins, and who, as the result of this subserviency, were the great abettors and upholders of slavery so long as it subsisted in the South—that with churches crowded in the cities, hundreds of thousands are living on the territory without Sabbath or sanctuary influences, without a pastor, and without any one to care for their souls—and that in America, as elsewhere, Voluntaryism tends to promote Congregationalism and commercialism, instead of a system of faithful and devoted pastoral superintendence in connection with the ministry of the Gospel” (229-30).

[Quoting a minister in western Canada] “I must pass by the other still greater evil of the Voluntary system; I mean the evil effect which must be the natural consequence of the want of independence in the clergy themselves upon the doctrines of the Gospel. The multitude of sectarian creeds produces a very general indifference to all religion’” (232-33).

“Voluntaryism, therefore, it is very evident, does not change its hue on the other side of the Atlantic. It is fruitful of the same evils there as here. With all the free scope and fair-play it enjoys under the starred and striped Republican banner, it leaves tens and hundreds of thousands uncared for. With a Beecher there, as with a Spurgeon here, planted in a large and populous city, enshrined in a temple where fashion helps to swell the votaries, and sensationalism or genius impregnates the winged words spoken from the pulpit with power to awe, entrance, or excite, Voluntaryism will win for itself such victories as impress the vulgar or unthinking with the idea that it is the system best fitted to succeed” (233).

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William Smith’s chapter “Endowed Territorial Work as Contrasted with Voluntaryism” in his Endowed Territorial Work (1875) is just so full of really profound, meaty material with surprisingly contemporary relevance that I’m just going to cut and paste a large swath here.  If you’re confessionally Reformed and zealous for mission that doesn’t pander, read this and read on.  You absolutely must cut your teeth on Smith; and if you’re hungry for more, by all means pick up Chalmers! 

A few things I love about this passage.  First, Smith represents the Reformed parish in all its vigorous masculinity.  Unlike the gathered church-model of Voluntaryism (19th century de-establishmentarianism), this construct keeps the church at the center of the community regardless of demographic and socio-economic shifts.  The Reformed parish church stands as a steady bulwark; it holds the standard like an intrepid solider on a contested hill.  Tragically, churches over the last 100-200 years have retreated from the inner-cities.  Not so the Reformed parish church.  And I would think that those who are won over to the ideals of ‘the auld Kirk’ would head unbanward to retrieve long-surrendered ground. 

Not only is the Reformed parish church steadfast, as Smith points out, but it is consciously God- and not man-pleasing.  The tendency of the alternate system yielding to market principles is to fawn and pander.  The latter tends to discharge its duty to men in the sight of God.  True, the Reformed parish church is designed to serve men.  But it serves them as that institution invested with the keys of the Kingdom, assigned to a definite geographic charge, and answerable to its King.

Related to this, Smith makes something clear that I haven’t yet seen in Chalmers.  He points out how territorialism tends to retard the downgrade of confessionalism.  If this model in principle resists the forces of market demand, then at least there is a kind of barrier raised against the inroads of populist latitudinarianism. 

Last – and so much more could be said – I love how Smith shows that the old Reformed parish plan smothers the cult of personality in its infancy.  Being Presbyterian, it takes overseer parity seriously both inside and outside the local context.  And since it respects without worshipping geographic, ecclesiastical boundaries, it promotes diligent attendance on the means of grace on faithful, not necessarily sensational pastors.  Oh, and there is no chapter on sheep-stealing in its playbook.

Alright.  Enough of Ives; enter Smith.

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Voluntaryism cannot, on its own footing, maintain itself in [poor] districts. Innumerable instances have occurred in which Voluntary chapels, planted originally in districts occupied by industrious and church-attending families, have been removed from these districts to more affluent and attractive neighbourhoods so soon as, from the extension of the town and the concentration of poverty and crime, there occurred an influx into these districts of a poor or vicious population. Parish churches remain permanently in their first position. Though erected originally for the rich, who occupied as their palatial mansions tenements now converted into stores and warehouses, and now surrounded by drunkenness, pauperism, filth, and crime, they maintain their places unchanged, and continue to ring out their Sabbath-bell warning against the sins that prevail around them. Parish ministers, true to their trust, do not abandon the degraded poor whether they will hear or whether they will forbear.”  The fold and the shepherd remain, whatever change the flock may undergo.”  But Voluntaries, more fickle in their affections and less restricted in action, change continually the sites of their chapels, and follow on the skirts of a paying population. Edinburgh exhibits examples of this. Glasgow exhibits still more. But perhaps the most notorious scene of such unworthy and recreant migrations is to be found in Liverpool, where more than fifty such deserted sites may be traced on the map of the town, and where thirty-three chapels have occupied a hundred and thirty different sites— the congregations, in their corporate capacity, remaining the same.  The principle that operates in this way to the abandonment and neglect of the poorer districts, that the wealthier may be courted and cultivated, is surely not a right or commendable principle. It does not harmonise with the spirit of the Gospel, nor can it fulfil the command or do the work of Him who said, “Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in hither ” (i.e., to the Gospel feast) “the poor, and the maimed, and the halt, and the blind. … Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house be filled.”

Dissenters, as a rule, do not systematically visit the poor. It is not part of their system. Their energies are sufficiently tasked otherwise in recruiting their ranks from the multitude of respectable artisans and small shopkeepers who, in our overgrown town parishes, are driven from the national Church by the lack of sufficient accommodation, or by the system of exclusive and proprietary pews that has sprung up, fungus-like, in some quarters. If any Dissenting congregation does adopt the system of local house-to-house visitation, the manner and the meaning of it will soon be detected. The zeal of many of the visitors will be found to expend itself in plying with fulsome flattery, or cajoling with astute misrepresentation, the more respectable adherents of other Churches, if haply they may be seduced to speak the shibboleth and swell the numbers of their congregation. The degraded classes will be lightly passed by. The clamant poor will be silently left, or actually certificated and commended, to the care of the parish minister. The system that countenances, necessitates, or involves such procedure as this, is a selfish, hollow, and rotten system. It cannot cope with the adverse circumstances of society; it cannot overcome the evil of the world.

The system of endowed territorial work, on the contrary, is in strict keeping with Christ’s commission to go and make disciples of all nations. It accords with the plan on which the apostles and first promulgators of the Gospel founded Churches in different places. It conserves the general principles laid down in the New Testament for the guidance of the Church to the end of the world. It approves itself to sound reason as best adapted alike for diffusing generally, and for maintaining permanently, the power of the Gospel in any land. It secures for the pastor a proper sphere, and invests him with the requisite influence, authority, and independence. It places the office-bearers and members of his congregation in a right relationship to him, one to another, and towards such as are without. It marks out for them all a field, the faithful cultivation of which at once exercises the graces and gifts, enhances the joys and rewards, of those that cultivate it, and adds to the trophies of the great Husbandman into whose garners its crops are gathered.  On all these grounds, and on many more which time would fail fully to specify, endowed territorial work approves itself as the system which, most consistent with Christian principle, is in practice found to be most effective and successful.

On the minister it devolves the burden of territorial responsibility, by assigning to each, at his ordination and induction to a parish, a certain amount of well – defined and overtakable, work.  This is its grand underlying principle. Practically, the principle has been departed from in many instances, and especially in our large towns, in consequence partly of the increase of population without a corresponding increase of parishes and parish churches, partly of the rivalry of Dissenters resulting therefrom. But wherever and from whatsoever cause the principle has not been fairly and fully wrought out by the national Church, it has been to the ultimate loss of that Church, and to the detriment of true religion. “Where the principle is strictly acted on—and it ought to be so in every case, both in town and in country parishes—the minister naturally and of necessity feels an interest in his work of a totally different kind from that which is possible in the case of him who acts on the Voluntary principle. The Voluntary minister is bound to the people who are attracted to his ministry by his eloquence and ability in the pulpit. The distance from which these are drawn is limited only by the range of the influence of that attraction. The greater his ability, or popular gifts rather, the wider is the scope of his attractive influence, and consequently the larger the area from which his congregation is drawn, and the vaster and more promiscuous the mass of population among which they are scattered here and there. His relations to his flock are personal only, and change continually with its shifting and fluctuating units. The greater his success and the larger his congregation, the less intimate and the less influential will these relations necessarily become. Whereas, in the case of the minister bound to a territory of manageable extent, his relations not only to the members of his congregation, but to all the inhabitants of that territory, are of a totally different character. They are more solid, intimate, and permanent. He belongs to them. He is officially and solemnly bound to serve them. The consciousness that he is so, and the consequent concentration of his attention and efforts on the scene of their daily avocations, impart to him a feeling of property in them. They belong to him. They are his people. There is thus insensibly created between him and them a link of friendly and familiar correspondence, which leads to the most beneficial effects. Thoroughly acquainted with the dimensions of his field of duty, and aware of the extent of his responsibility, the minister enters upon his labours with alacrity and good hope, and is stimulated and encouraged to steady perseverance in them by the comfortable and enlivening sense of being able to overtake them. Visiting his parish from house to house, he not only ministers on the best footing to those parishioners who by attendance in his church have expressed a desire for his ministrations, but, without any appearance of intrusiveness, without the possibility of offence, and without prejudice to the message he bears, he obtains easy access to home after home, where one circumstanced and accredited as he is can alone preach the Gospel with effect to those so utterly lapsed and careless that no amount of mere pulpit attraction will ever draw them to Christianity.  Besides, what wide and effectual doors are opened for his usefulness by the feeling which pervades the sphere of his activities that in the time of need the poor may apply to him, assured of sympathy and friendly aid—that in the season of sickness he is ready at hand to visit the most abandoned and depraved on their bed of languishing or pain, and to counsel and direct them when conscience at last finds her voice, when their fear cometh as desolation, and when distress and anguish come upon them!  The people know that they can in such cases confidently count upon his succour. Their mutual intercourse and acquaintanceship strengthen this feeling from day to day, till at last, by the cementing force of sympathy, the minister is throned, as Chalmers says, “in a moral ascendancy over his district;” and from his very position there goes forth a commanding influence for the highest ends, that reaches every home and heart within it.

For it is not the good of the poor only which the system of endowed territorial work is calculated to promote. That system is as much required and as well adapted for behoof of the careless and godless among the wealthier classes, who, but for it, would in the great majority of cases be left entirely to themselves, without instruction, counsel, or reproof, in the matter of their spiritual concerns. They are quite as liable as their poorer brethren to fall away altogether from religion. God has formed their hearts alike. By nature they are equally corrupt and depraved. The temptations of wealth and luxury and refinement are not less powerful in seducing men from the paths of piety than the temptations peculiar to a low, crushed, animal condition. The rich, therefore, need the visits and the ministrations of a faithful minister whom they respect, as much as the poor do. But in nine cases out of ten the visit of a minister acting on the Voluntary system would only give offence to the wealthy, create in them additional prejudice against religion, and so issue in doing far more harm than good. Whereas, on the other hand, the minister acting on the territorial system has, in the very nature of his work, a passport to every house in his parish. The reason of his visit being simply the discharge of incumbent duty, will be readily recognised and regarded with respect by the highest in common with the lowest; and, in point of fact, the relations which, on this ground, have been established between the landed aristocracy and gentry on the one hand, and the ministers of the Church of Scotland on the other, have been fruitful in manifold benefits, not only to the rich themselves, but to all classes. They have helped in some measure to neutralise the tendencies of these later revolutionary days towards the disintegration of society, and to keep class united to class by the bonds of mutual sympathy and respect.

The benefits of endowed territorial work have indeed for some generations been obscured by the partial extent to which the system has been maintained in this country.  Even at the period of the Reformation, the statesmanlike idea of Knox in regard to it was never fully realised. Through lack of sufficiently qualified ministers, and more particularly in consequence of the ruthless spoliation of the Church’s patrimony already referred to, the parochial economy of the Church was never, up to the measure of his policy and wish, made sufficiently large and comprehensive for the population of the country. Instead of one thousand only, as he desired, more than three thousand were assigned, on the average, to each parochial charge. In the years that followed, matters grew gradually worse and worse in this respect. In the course of time the population was trebled, and yet no appreciable addition was made to the territorial machinery of the Church. In the towns, where the principal increase of population took place, and where Church extension was chiefly required, the evil arising from neglecting this extension was in particular greatly aggravated by the all but total relinquishment there of all regard to territorial limits in the management of such churches as existed, and in the membership and discipline of their several congregations. These congregations, drawn indiscriminately from all quarters of the town, and from whatsoever parishes formed or environed the town, speedily lapsed into a state of semi-independency. In most instances, their numbers and demands were such as tasked all the energies and took up the whole time and attention of their respective ministers. In consequence of this, the territories assigned to their pastoral care remained untended and unvisited. For all practical intents and purposes, their boundary lines might have been erased from the map. The great mass of their population fell out of all ecclesiastical oversight. And thus the territorial system, sinking into something very like desuetude in many of the most important and conspicuous parts of the country, has not had fair play, and by many is supposed to have proved a failure, simply because it has never been tried.

Another thing which has operated strongly to the damage and disparagement of the territorial system is the overlapping competition of Voluntaryism. By virtue of the tolerant spirit of the times, and because of the liberal character of our civil constitution, Dissenters participate largely in the civil privileges flowing to all that profess religion out of the existence of an endowed territorial Church, although formally they refuse to be parties to any compact between Church and State, such as makes such a Church most easily possible. They derive no trivial advantage from the publicly recognised standard of truth and duty necessarily maintained by the national Church, and to some extent they share also in the benefits arising generally out of its parochial economy and organisation. In point of fact, as I have already indicated, Dissent flourishes only when and where the national Church is strong. Were that Church annihilated to-morrow, and were Voluntaryism thenceforward to become the universal order of the day, the first effect of the change would be a sapping of the chief strength there is in Voluntaryism, which is traceable mainly to the efforts of rivalry.  Gradually, every standard raised by it now, would be lowered further and further. Salaries now forced up by jealous comparison with stipends would become beautifully less. Systems of doctrine, kept pure and unrelaxed because of the continued existence in authority of the Westminster Confession, would, from time to time, be altered in one point after another, to suit the shifting sentiment of the hour. Work now stimulated into general activity by the arbitrary routine of official labours would degenerate into selfish and time-serving efforts.

And yet Dissent, owing her existence and much of her activity to the territorial system, does her very utmost to degrade the character and destroy the benefits of endowed territorial work—like the ivyplant, which, as it climbs, tends to choke the stalwart tree that supports it. Erecting here and there places of worship, maintaining in them ordinances which in most cases are nowise distinguishable from those dispensed by the national Church, and drawing to her, for various reasons, many nurtured in different parishes, she poaches at her capricious pleasure, now in this parish, now in that, and prosecutes, where the work will pay, enterprises that overlap and jar with proper territorial agencies, so as to prevent these from producing the benefit which, left alone to themselves, they would certainly do. What experience is more common at the present day than that of the earnest parish minister who, carefully mapping out his territory into convenient districts, and assigning to each such a staff of labourers as, under the presidency and direction of pious elders and deacons, could sufficiently attend to all the wants, both temporal and spiritual, of the whole population, finds that no sooner is the work thus planned and provided for begun, than it is imitated in its method and machinery by the emissaries of some neighbouring Voluntary congregation, who, previously satisfied with work of a congregational kind, select as a locality for their systematic cultivation not one altogether neglected, which would be good and praiseworthy on their part, but preferentially one which he already is sufficiently caring for? It may seem invidious thus to speak of such labours, by whomsoever and in whatsoever field they may be prosecuted. Those who are only superficially acquainted with such territorial work may imagine that the spiritual wants of any district can never be entirely overtaken, and that therefore no amount of work bestowed on it can ever be superfluous, or any number of workers in excess of its actual requirements. Such persons may consequently be inclined to attribute the remarks now made to jealous or spiteful feeling towards Dissenters.  But, in point of fact, all earnest workers in such fields must know well that there arises no greater hindrance to success in endeavouring to reclaim the outcast and elevate the fallen, than that which is caused by the clashing interference of two or three sets of similar agencies overlapping each other in one locality; and when, as too often happens, Dissenting agencies expend their principal care and strength on fields previously occupied by others, and in attempts to proselytise the children and dependants of those already more or less closely connected with other communions, the ultimate result of their efforts in this way can be only detrimental to the cause of religion in the locality, and tend to damage, not to promote, the success of thorough territorial work.

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Few in confessional Reformed circles would question the ‘McDonaldization’ of the Church thesis.  So much of evangelical Christianity in America has caved in to consumerism.   But historically, I have to ask whether we’re at the end of a long journey begun by 19th century Voluntaries?  Or was it perhaps commenced inadvertently by the 17th century devotees of “gathered churches?”  The following quote from William Smith (a la Chalmers) at least raises the question, given that his central critique of Voluntaryism is its commericialization of the Church:

“But the radical and fatal defect of the Voluntary system lies in this, that from its very nature it tends to occupy and engross itself with the fat places of the land, leaving the lean neglected and uncared for—that it absorbs and isolates into self-supporting confederations the very portion of the population that ought to be caring for the perishing souls of others less happily conditioned—that the more successful it is in any field, the more neglectful must it be of those persons connected with that field who most require the ministrations of the Gospel —and that its besetting and generally irresistible temptation is to make the grace and ordinances of religion a matter of mere competitive shopkeeping on the one hand, and of ready-money purchase on the other” (William Smith, Endowed Territorial Work, 100-1).

Yet, I fear that Smith’s critique of consumerism cuts both ways.   

Smith wrote at a time when the integrity of evangelicalism had not been radically vitiated.  Many (most?) Voluntaries were Calvinist.  Smith really was criticizing all Voluntaryism, Calvinist or not, because it tended to make the faith once delivered gravitate to where the money is.  Voluntaryism of whatever stripe simply had no internal mechanism to ensure that everyone in the land, including the working classes, were provided the pure ordinances.  The old Kirk, with its principle of endowed territorialism, did. 

Reformed churches in North America are de facto if not de jure gathered churches.  And while many of us have been kept from the abyss of crass McDonaldization (so far), yet we tend to exist only where we can be financed.  Does this explain not only the temptation to dilute our confessionalism, but also why there are so few confessionally Reformed churches in urban America?

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Recently, I’ve picked up William Smith’s Endowed Territorial Work again.  Truly great stuff.  Robust, Reformed missiology from a disciple of Thomas Chalmers.

The following is a quote in which Smith takes a swipe at 19th century Voluntaryism, which is basically now the status quo most evangelical churches.  Every church is functionally on its own, sink or swim, and is fully subject to the laws of the religious marketplace.  Or, as Smith succinctly puts it, Voluntaryism is the synthesis of “congregationalism and commercialism.”  The net effect is the degradation of the holy ministry.

It also may help orient the reader to mention that Smith has just argued for “necessity of rearranging the whole country into parishes of manageable extent and population, and the likeliest means by which this can be accomplished in present circumstances.”  That’s the parish principle a la Chalmers, also called territorialism.  In this chapter he contends for a coordinate principle with regards to finance, that is, “the provision for each parish of such an endowment or stipend for the minister as shall make him so far independent of those to whom he preaches, and render his services available for the benefit ot such of his parishioners as are either too poor or indisposed to pay for Gospel ordinances” (182).

So, enjoy! – or be challenged, either one.  But at the very least, think.

* * * *

The eminent success of the Free Church of Scotland, not only in the home, but also in the foreign field of evangelistic activity, is frequently quoted as an unanswerable argument in favour of Voluntaryism as against endowment; and on certain platforms it has become customary, for those decrying union with the State, to invite the members of the National Church, to surrender the privileges therein enjoyed, and to imitate the exodus by which their former brethren went forth to enjoy exemption from the burdens connected with permanent endowments. Now, far be it from me, and from every one who has true Scottish blood in his veins, to say one word in disparagement of the sacrifices, exertions, and successes of the Free Church, or to seek to detract from the praise justly due to the skill and statesmanship with which the great founders and leaders of that influential denomination have shaped its policy and guided its career.  But their great success is undoubtedly due in no small degree to the institution by Dr Chalmers of what is called the Sustentation Fund, which, though dependent for its supplies on free contributions from year to year, is in its principle and effects diametrically opposed to Voluntaryism, and does, so far as is possible in the circumstances, embody and carry out the principle of endowment.  It is not so secure as absolute endowment, and therefore the latter is not to be lightly, or except for very much stronger reasons than have yet been advanced, abandoned for it; but the income it provides for Free Church ministers is not dependent merely on the voluntary donations of those that wait upon their ministry. It is drawn in large measure from a source which is really fixed and permanent in its character, and which, though less secure and exempt from the possibility of variableness than that provided by the piety of remote ancestors and invested in substantial property, is yet sufficiently settled and sure to fulfil many of the purposes of endowment. It affects at least the constitution of tha relation between pastor and people, so far as to mitigate in a very considerable degree the evil inherent in mere Voluntaryism, by which the minister is made the minion and the slave of those whom he is bound as the ambassador of Christ to “exhort and rebuke with all authority.”

This mitigation, to whatever it amounts, is, so far as it goes, an immense gain. The evil it abates is most pernicious in its results. As a system, the evil tends to produce mere vapouring orators and popular demagogues and tinkling cymbals, rather than judicious expositors or valiant defenders of the truth and faithful pastors. It renders the exercise of sound and wholesome ecclesiastical discipline next to impossible, and it fills the advertising columns of Saturday newspapers with announcements of sermons and orations couched in clap-trap [absurd or nonsensical] phraseology, the puffery of which is simply disgusting to serious minds, and cannot but be fearfully deteriorating to the spiritual quality of any man, forced to seek by such unworthy expedients to fill his chapel and increase the coppers cast into his treasury.

That this is more frequently the result of Voluntaryism than some may suspect; that  “The pulpit’s laws the pulpit’s patrons give, / And those who live to preach, must preach to live,” is clear from the testimony bome by John Angell James, himself one of the most illustrious of Dissenting ministers.  He says: “In many of our churches the pastor is placed far below his level; he may natter like a sycophant, beg like a servant, or woo like a lover; he is not permitted to enjoin like a ruler.  His opinion is received with no deference; his person is treated with no respect; and, in presence of some of his lay tyrants, he is only permitted to peep and mutter in the dust.”

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