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Occasional Hearing


Occasional Hearing

James Dodson

“Because they know his voice. Though he speaks here of ministers, yet, instead of wishing that they should be heard, he wishes that God should be heard speaking by them; for we must attend to the distinction which he has laid down, that he alone is a faithful pastor or shepherd of the Church, who conducts and governs his sheep by the direction of Christ. We must attend to the reason why it is said that the sheep follow; it is, because they know how to distinguish shepherds from wolves by the voice. This is the spirit of discernment, by which the elect discriminate between the truth of God and the false inventions of men. So then, in the sheep of Christ a knowledge of the truth goes before, and next follows an earnest desire to obey, so that they not only understand what is true, but receive it with warm affection. And not only does he commend the obedience of the faith, because the sheep assemble submissively at the voice of the shepherd, but also because they do not listen to the voice of strangers, and do not disperse when any one cries to them.”—John Calvin, comments on John 10:5, Commentary on the Gospel of John.

Is it right to attend upon the ministrations of other churches? In other words, is it consistent with the position which we occupy as a church, to hold communion in the word with other churches—protestant, presbyterian, and, in the general sense of the term, orthodox? We are the more concerned to have this inquiry satisfactorily answered, inasmuch as we now have almost come, to stand alone, in the Presbyterian community, in maintaining the negative—at least practically. Until lately, the Associate church held no doubtful position on this subject. The writings of her most eminent men and the practice of her members, accorded with our views and practice: they were constantly adverse to occasional communion. In the progress of measures with a view to union with the Associate Reformed, a very manifest change has taken place on this subject. Writers in her communion maintain that there is no law of the church forbidding occasional hearing,—and, in some sections, at least, her members and ministers do, now and then, attend upon the ministrations of some other churches. To what extent this change has taken place, and with what churches this kind of fellowship would, at this time, be extended, we have no means of affirming; but that the hedge has been broken down is plain, and that it will soon be entirely swept away, we have not the least doubt. In the sister churches in Scotland and Ireland, a similar change has taken place. So far as we are aware, indeed, the extending of fellowship in the word to other churches, is not generally vindicated on principle; but it is, we think, universally tolerated—it is not made a subject of discipline. And even among ourselves, there are not wanting exemplifications of a similar state of things.

It is time to examine the question—to ascertain precisely where the church ought to stand. We do not say where the church does stand—we mean as to her rules and as to her practice: these have been quite clearly defined. We now only refer to the Testimony—the last page of the historical part—where we find the following: “Nor can they, (Reformed Presbyterians,) consistently join, either statedly, or occasionally, in the communion of any other church, by waiting upon its ministry, either in word or sacraments, while they continue opposed to these declared sentiments;” and to the doctrinal part, ch. xxii. error 7, “That occasional communion may be extended to persons who should not be received to constant fellowship.” The first of these quotation explains—and was intended to explain—the second. They cannot be misunderstood, and, we think, by fair interpretation, not only adjudge occasional hearing to be wrong, but also censurable. What we now propose is to vindicate the ground thus taken by the Reformed Presbyterian Church; to throw out some hints, at any rate, that may stir up some other or others to more minute investigation.

And, in the outset, we do not conceal the fact, that the position we hold is regarded with no little dislike by the Christian community around us; that it exposes us more, perhaps, than any other peculiarity of our church, to the charge of bigotry, and a prejudiced exclusiveness. It is considered as, in fact, an attempt to unchurch all other denominations. And they are not disinclined to retort upon us that we, in a manner, put ourselves out of the pale of Christian sympathies by thus hedging ourselves up within our own narrow pale. This reproach we must try to bear. We are conscious of no lack of interest in any who bear the image of Christ. We regard with concern and with warm sympathy the efforts of the Lord’s people wherever they are found, and under whatever banner they are ranged, to vindicate the truth, to maintain Christian morals, to repress evils, to win the unconverted to Christ. We mourn over the divisions of the church, and lament the existence of barriers—not of our raising—to the fullest and freest intercourse between us and many of whom we gladly recognise as the disciples of Christ. To stand aloof from them,—to be compelled, in conscience to do so—affords us no gratification. We are not unsocial, or morose, or indifferent to the kindly regards of other followers of Christ. In the language of our Testimony,—they, Reformed Presbyterians, “sincerely lament that the principles of their Testimony should prove so opposite to the practice of many churches containing many of the saints of God; but they had no alternative; they must act thus, or renounce their faithfulness. They cheerfully appreciate the talents and piety of their acquaintances. And, as opportunity may offer, commune with them as friends and as Christians; but they cannot extend to any one the right hand of fellowship in the visible church upon any other principles than those contained in their Declaration and Testimony.” (Test., Hist. Part last p.)

We profess, then, to act conscientiously in withdrawing from fellowship with other churches, even in the word. Have we good reasons? Is our conscience in this an enlightened conscience? Before attempting an answer to these inquiries, we remark, that the point at issue is, the propriety of attending upon the preaching of the word in other churches. It matters not on what day whether the first day or the seventh, or any intervening day of the week. By attending upon the Lord’s day, purer ordinances may be neglected, anti thus there may be, and is, additional wrong done; but this has nothing to do with our present inquiry. Again, the ministrations to which we refer, may be marred by sundry objectionable, but not necessary, accompaniments—as the reading of prayers, the singing of human compositions, instrumental music—but these may be viewed as incidental circumstances, important, indeed, and greatly aggravating the wrong, but still separable from it, as distinct items. The doctrine of our Testimony makes no distinct reference to them—it relates immediately to “occasional communion in the word and to this point we design to direct our argument, introducing the evils to which we have alluded only so far as w find them to have a bearing upon the matter in its practical aspects.

Is it, then, right to attend upon the ministrations of other churches? It is not;—because, and this is the grand point, they hold errors, against which we testify. We need hardly say, that we do not regard all other denominations as occupying the same ground. Some are grossly heretical—others are much less erroneous. We would make the requisite distinctions. Still, with regard to them all, our position is, that, whether more or less erroneous, they are at least so much so that we feel ourselves under obligations to keep separate, ecclesiastically, from them.

And this, 1st, Because we have divine direction to do so. We quote one passage, Rom. 16:17, “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned, and avoid them.” That the existing divisions of the church are chargeable upon those who have marred the church’s creed—either by leaving out truth or by introducing error—cannot be denied. If so, the rule seems to be unmistakeable; we are to “withdraw” from such, and not only to withdraw, but to “avoid” them. Again, there can be no difficulty, certainly, in applying this rule to those who hold or teach the more hurtful kinds of error—to papists, to prelatists of all names, to Arminians, to crowds of errorists and heretics—who, to the shame of protestantism, have established their distinct conventions and assemblies. But does it apply to such as err on points less fundamental? This question we are not bound to solve. If any chargeable with schism are to be excluded from the operation of this rule, it lies upon them and their advocates to establish their right of exemption. Until this be done, we hold ourselves at liberty to include all. And, moreover, does it not seem most natural, most definite, and most judicious, to draw the line where the church has previously fixed it, in the very fact of keeping up a separate denominational organization? And, finally, the rule is in another place expressed in a form so definite and decided as to cover all the ground we advocate, and to preclude the more “liberal” interpretation. We refer to 2 Thess. 3:6, “Now command you, brethren, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us.” We are to withdraw from “every” brother; and, surely, if from every “brother,” from every one who, in the ministry, walks not after the forms of gospel truth, but after some form of error. And with what greater emphasis may we insist upon the application of this rule if these “disorderly” brethren and ministers unite, and establish a separate organization as a church, on the very basis of these errors or defections? But, it may be said, that this rule only reaches so far as this—that we are not to follow them, or go with them in this social abandonment of the truth. Such a view is inadmissible; for,

2. A separation in these cases imports eminently a withholding our countenance from public ministrations of the word. We here take for granted that we are not at liberty to become members of erroneous, or backsliding churches: in other words that it is our duty neither to receive sacraments with them, nor to unite with them in matters of government or discipline—nor to identify ourselves with them in promoting their peculiar denominational interests.

And we admit that there are special reasons applicable to all these particulars, and to them only. The sacraments are sealing ordinances: to join in government and discipline—to say nothing of differences as to the very principles in forms of government, would be to keep in abeyance the defence and vindication by church censures of certain truths and duties—to join in promoting the efforts of a corrupt church, would be to employ our efforts in direct propagation of error. For these and similar reasons, we are fully justified in refusing to become one with errorists; but reasons exist not less urgent for withdrawing from hearing their preaching. And, in general, we affirm that the ordinance of preaching is that which most fully brings out, most powerfully confirms, and most extensively spreads, denominational errors and evils. Employed in defence and vindication of truth, it is the main instrumentality by which the work of evangelization has been, is, or ever will be, promoted. The faith of the church has lived, and wrought, and triumphed, largely, most largely, by means of the pulpit. Take away the living voice, and truth would soon die by slow degrees. Just so with errors. It is the pulpit which animates them with a living energy. Without it, they would not, indeed, die, for error will live while corrupt and blinded nature lives, but it would lose a chief agency in its perpetuation. Powerful as the pulpit is where active on the side of truth, it is not less so when perverted and enlisted on the side of error.

Now, why do we “withdraw from every brother that walketh disorderly?” Partly for our protection, certainly: but also that we may withhold our sanction from his errors and evils, and so weaken their influence: that we may follow the straight line of truth, and maintain the purity of Christian morals. But how can we do this effectually unless we extend our line of separation so far as that the pulpit which teaches error may lie on the other side? Having fixed our line, can we consistently cross it, even occasionally, and so give direct countenance to the system which we have been at pains to announce as too erroneous to receive our sanction?

3. Our position is the only safe one. We must in these matters look, partly, to ourselves. The protection of the faithful from the insidious influence of error is one reason of the founding of the rule on which we have based our argument. It is not wise to expose ourselves to the danger of being indoctrinated in unscriptural error, or to be misled by the advocacy of wrong practices. On this very principle, the Spirit of God by Solomon, says, “Cease, my son, to hear the instruction that causeth to err from the words of knowledge.” Prov. 19:27. We are not at liberty to say that the errors of a creed put forth by a denomination will not be taught. They will have a place in its pulpit exhibitions. Arminians will teach their doctrine; Hopkinsians, theirs; Presbyterians, theirs; Seceders, theirs; Baptists, theirs; Episcopalians, theirs; New Lights, theirs. True, this may not—will not be done—in every discourse. But we have no right to infer that it will not be done in any particular discourse. And of one thing we may be sure, that the denomination is every Lord’s day, by some, perhaps many of its ministers, teaching in some way its peculiar principles. We may be sure of another thing, that if we attend for a time upon the services of any of them—and if we may attend once, circumstances being the same we may attend any number of times—we shall be taught denominational errors; and, if not, we shall be listening to what professes to be a fair presentation of the word of God, while truths, which we hold to be of high importance, are left out of view. In all this there is danger, even in the last; for while thus interested in but partial views of truth, there is danger of letting go what is so important as to constitute, in fact, the very ground of our distinct standing and covenant testimony.

Nor do we admit that what is sometimes said—“We can take the truth, and leave out or reject the error”—has any weight. Error is insinuating. It may be plausibly presented: the more so, because—like poison in our food—it may be given in connexion with much precious truth. And, besides, the capacity to take the truth and reject the error, may be possessed by some—we may admit this—but are all able to do this? Are there not many who need to be fed with the “sincere milk of the word,” and with nothing else, lest they be affected with deleterious influences? And yet, remember, in advocating occasional hearing, we are laying down rules that may be followed by all alike: by the comparatively ignorant, by the young, by the feeble. There may be some, clad in asbestos, who can “take fire in their bosom, and their clothes not be burned”—but the mass of us had better not try the experiment.

We can enforce all this by an appeal to history. On the one hand, have not the faithful ever found it necessary to keep aloof from error? Has not dissent—dissent faithfully carried out—been an eminent means of preserving the truth? Had our fathers from 1689 practised attendance upon the parish churches of Scotland, where would the Covenanting Church have been? It requires no wizard to answer this question, and the test is a perfectly fair one. On the other hand, what has been the invariable fruit of breaking down, among: any people, this barrier? Sooner or later, it has resulted in the parties being found at the same communion table. We all know that this is so, nearly universally, in the churches around us. Presbyterians, Methodists, and Low Church Episcopalians, meet at the same communion table. They regard it as a thing of course, and regard the doctrine and practice of close communion as being almost the extreme of bigotry. We think they are consistent. When they can hear, they can partake, as a general rule, of sacraments. If they can bury differences so far as to sit under the same teachings, they are not far out of the way in receiving the same word sacramentally. The same consequence appears every where, with some exceptions. The Associate Church, in the course of the union efforts, removed the hedge of occasional hearing, and even organic union is now not far distant. Safety—the preservation of our own interest—demands of us to throw the pulpits of other churches the other side of our line of demarcation.

4. The maintenance and efficacy of a sound testimony also demand this. We hold—not arrogantly, we trust, but very distinctly—that we have a system, which, even in its peculiarities, is of no minor importance: that we are called to occupy the position, and maintain the character and standing of witnesses for Christ on behalf of truths elsewhere either overlooked, or disregarded, or impugned. To carry out this testimony, we hold fast to our distinct organization. Now, we assert that the efficacy of our testimony, and we may add, its diffusion, are closely connected with that portion of our practice which we now defend. By standing aloof, we give evidence that we lay no little stress upon our testimony for sound gospel, and the royal prerogatives of Christ. Allowing and rejoicing in all that is commendable in other churches, and awarding them praise for all the good they do, we yet hold up before them, in this unmistakeable form, our serious and deliberate conviction that they are not what they ought to be. They take offence. We cannot help it. At all events, they cannot but see us. If any thing, this will lead to inquiry.

We may consider this also in the light of history. How do we come, to be what we are in reference to other churches? Have we left them, or have they left us? No historian can he at any loss for a reply. “They have gone out from us”—we mean the churches descended from the British Reformers—not we from them. We are the stock—few in number, but still the stock—we hold fast all Reformation attainments. They have declined from them. We cannot either follow them, or countenance them in their course.

Look at it in another aspect. How have Covenanting principles been sustained, and by whose agency have they been often planted on new ground? By those who have faithfully acted upon the principle we now advocate. Our fathers refused to hear the curates and the indulged in Scotland, By so doing they kept aloft and waving in the winds the banner of the second Reformation. They refused to hear the ministry of the Establishment formed at the Revolution Settlement of 1688, upon the ruins of the Covenanted Reformation. So doing, they kept its principles from passing out of remembrance. Had they been as faithless as the majority, Scotland, we can pretty safely say, would not have been honoured in 1843 by that signal act of faith—the erection of a Free Church. And how has the church been established and extended in this country? By the instrumentality of men and women, worthy descendants of such ancestors. Go where you will, almost, you will find that our congregations have originated in societies, gathered by degrees, around some man or household, that had withheld attendance upon the ministry of neighbouring churches; while, on the other hand, not a few yielded to the error we combat, went to hear, and were lost to the Covenanting Church, instead of building up, like their more faithful brethren, another congregation. So it was after the Union in 1781, in which the Associate Reformed Church had its origin. In short, had it not been for this principle, few, indeed, would have been our congregations, compared to what they are now.[1.]

5. In many churches there are corruptions in worship. Our previous reasonings apply to the case of all other, except Old Light Covenanter churches. The remark we now make applies to some only: to such as corrupt the ordinance of praise by singing human compositions, and by the use of instruments of music—and the ordinance of prayer by the use of a liturgy. In addition, then, to the general arguments on which we have hitherto dwelt, we add this one as furnishing a sufficient reason, were there no other, to forbid us to attend, at any time, upon the services of the larger churches in this country. Who that believes such modes of worship to be directly against the second commandment—as being offensive to Christ—as tending to the greater corruption of the church, can feel free to give them the countenance of even an occasional hearing? Even those who may be disposed to deny the validity of our other argument, ought not to dispute this one.

We now conclude for the present. The subject is important. Too long it has claimed but little the attention of the press. In view of the circumstances to which we here referred in the commencement of our article, the subject may be, with propriety, agitated a little, and we now leave it with our writers and our readers.—(1852).


[1.] By the way, this fact meets an objection—a very plausible one. It is said—“Your principle is right when Covenanters have a church to attend, but what are the lonely to do? In the first place, we would inquire, Are they in the right to put themselves out of the reach of ordinances? If they are not, the objection amounts to nothing. And if they are or are not, let them be faithful and exert themselves, and they may form new congregations.