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Archive for the ‘Gathered Church Ecclesiology’ Category

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.

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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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I cannot say as I always agree with C. S. Lewis.  He was, after all, not a theologian by profession.  Yet his Screwtape Letters are worthily a spiritual classic and well worth the read.  I am truly amazed by Lewis’ spiritual acuity throughout.

As I was making my way through the Letters recently, one in particular- no. 16 – offered some keen insight into territorialism.  Screwtape favors the gathered church over the parish church – because of the ‘advantages’ of the former and the ‘dangers’ of the latter!  Here is an excerpt.

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MY DEAR WORMWOOD,

You mentioned casually in your last letter that the patient has continued to attend one church, and one only, since he was converted, and that he is not wholly pleased with it. May I ask what you are about? Why have I no report on the causes of his fidelity to the parish church?  Do you realise that unless it is due to indifference it is a very bad thing? Surely you know that if a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighbourhood looking for the church that “suits” him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches.

The reasons are obvious. In the first place the parochial organisation should always be attacked, because, being a unity of place and not of likings, it brings people of different classes and psychology together in the kind of unity the Enemy desires. The congregational principle, on the other hand, makes each church into a kind of club, and finally, if all goes well, into a coterie or faction. In the second place, the search for a “suitable” church makes the man a critic where the Enemy wants him to be a pupil. What He wants of the layman in church is an attitude which may, indeed, be critical in the sense of rejecting what is false or unhelpful, but which is wholly uncritical in the sense that it does not appraise—does not waste time in thinking about what it rejects, but lays itself open in uncommenting, humble receptivity to any nourishment that is going. (You see how grovelling, how unspiritual, how irredeemably vulgar He is!) This attitude, especially during sermons, creates the condition (most hostile to our whole policy) in which platitudes can become really audible to a human soul. There is hardly any sermon, or any book, which may not be dangerous to us if it is received in this temper. So pray bestir yourself and send this fool the round of the neighbouring churches as soon as possible. Your record up to date has not given us much satisfaction. . . .

Your affectionate uncle    
SCREWTAPE

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“It is easy to separate from the multitude, and to gather distinct churches, and to let the rest sink or swim; and if they will not be saved by public preaching, to let them be damned: but whether this be the most charitable and Christian course, one would think should be no hard question” (Reformed Pastor, p. 184). 

In Chalmers’ terms, we must operate on the principle of aggression and not attraction.

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I recently read an article entitled “Thomas Chalmers and the Communal Ideal in Victorian Scotland” (1992) by Stewart J. Brown, a recognized Chalmers scholar.  In it, he traces the development of the territorial mission program from Chalmers into the Free Church and, even somewhat surprisingly, back in the established Church in the late 1800s.

Brown makes an observation about the waning of the Free Church of Scotland’s vigor for the territorial ideal in the 1870s and on.  According to him, after a renaissance of Chalmersian territorial missions in the Free Church during the 1850s and 60s, the body slowly moved away from the ‘godly commonwealth’ ideal.  Writes Brown, “It began ceasing to perceive itself as a national Church, with responsibility for the spiritual and social welfare of the whole people of Scotland, and increasingly viewed itself as a gathered Church of believers.  In part, this was the result of the passing away of the older Free Church leadership, especially Robert Candlish and Thomas Guthrie (strong supporters of the territorial ideal)” (73).

Now, I’m no expert on the history to judge whether in fact this was the case.  But if it was, then I think it certainly reflects on a connection between ‘gathered church’ ecclesiology and the dangerous tendency to retreatism.  The territorial – or parochial – ideal envisioned the Church as at its core a society of the faithful, but ever reaching out to the perishing community beyond itself.  Its best expression did not confuse believing congregation and unbelieving community.  Yet it heartily embraced the unbelieving community under the obligation of its ‘cure of souls’ mandate (evangelism).  Sadly, when the Church loses that perspective, it will subtly morph into a mere asylum for escapists.  That is both unfaithfulness to Christ and a sure path to spiritual extinction.

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