[from The Associate Presbyterian, Vol. XV, No. 8, January, 1874, pp. 225-230.]
As what follows may fall into the hands of some who may not understand the term as we use it, we think it in place to say at the outset, that by occasional hearing is meant the full liberty to go at any time to hear any person of any denomination who may be announced to preach at any place, without either reproof or censure from any ecclesiastical court.
The gratification of this lust, we believe to be as much, or more than any other one thing, the reason why so many of the youth—do not formally connect with the church. We said intelligent youth. For let any other of the distinctive principles of the church be assailed, and they will defend them with zeal and energy; but the moment the position of the church on this subject is called in question, they are dumb—entirely disarmed, with not a word to say—prostrate at the feet of the advocate of occasional hearing.
It is not denied that error in some of its forms is maintained by those branches of the church against which our church maintains a distinct testimony; but to listen to error is thought not to be dangerous, and if there be a mixture of truth in what is taught it is thought entirely safe to listen. But, dear reader, we would have you consider, that if Eve in innocence was not proof against the errors of Satan’s teaching, much less are we who are weakened and corrupted by the fall able to withstand the influence of erroneous teaching. That there is some, or even much truth taught in connection with the error, does not remove the pernicious influence of the error; indeed it is the policy of the adversary to show some regard to truth, that he may the more successfully beguile us into the adoption of error.
Let our young friends who may read this, on the next Sabbath morning, when they dress themselves to go occasional hearing, just open their Bibles and read carefully the 3rd chapter of Genesis, and think seriously of the awful consequences of Eve’s listening but a few moments to the plausible, but false views presented by that artful serpent. Think further, young readers, that if Eve in her purity did not resist the corrupt reasonings of the evil one, how much less you who are totally defiled with sin will be able to discriminate, and gather together for rejection, all the latitudinarian errors that may be preached from the various pulpits in the land. Are not the chances all against you? Notice the 6th verse of that chapter; “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat.” When the young Seceder has heard the false reasoning and sophistries of the advocates of error, he is in danger of yielding in like manner; and very frequently concludes, with its advocates, that occasional hearing is a pleasant entertainment, and a thing “to be desired to make one wise;” and, presuming himself to be a competent critic and judge, he adopts the practice as one very conducive to his intellectual and spiritual advantage and growth.
The evil results of the practice are very forcibly illustrated by Bunyan, where he represents Christian and Hopeful as passing over a stile into By-paths meadow. If you have “Bunyan’s Pilgrim Progress,” turn to the account and read for yourselves the sad consequences of this apparently shall transgression. Now, does not the young Seceder reason much in the same manner as did the two pilgrims? He thinks it a very small transgression; in fact, hardly to be called a transgression at all. Looking over the stile into the other church, he sees what appears to be a very smooth pleasant way, diverging very little if any from the direction of the rougher, harder way in which he is traveling, and decides to cross the stile, in the expectation that all will now be well with him. But was this the experience of the pilgrims? Far from it. Neither will it be yours: but as they met with many sore trials and difficulties in Giant Despair’s dominions and in the prison of Doubting Castle, so that, with the aid of a certain key, they were barely able to escape with their lives; so you may find the way of the transgressor hard, and there is reason to fear that when you find yourselves shut up in the prison of Doubting Castle, you will lack the key by which Christian and Hopeful made their escape. Whenever you run to hear various opposing doctrines preached from Sabbath to Sabbath, you are in Giant Despair’s dominions, and from there to Doubting Castle, from which escape is difficult, is easy and almost certain—“Cease, my son, to hear the instruction that causeth to err from the words of knowledge.” Prov. 19:27, is an injunction as binding upon you of the nineteenth century as upon the people of God in Solomon’s time.
But, says one, will you assert that none but Seceders preach the Gospel? By no means. What, then, it is asked, is the sin in hearing a gospel sermon preached by a Presbyterian? or what the sin in hearing a Methodist proclaim that the wages of sin is death? In short, what harm can there be in going occasionally to hear any person I may choose? To all which it is replied, that God not only has a right to be worshipped by all his intelligent creatures, but will only be acceptably worshipped in the ways of his own appointment. He requires us to “be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” in our church profession; and to worship him, not in the way of opposing or denying the truths of that profession, but in the way of acknowledging and maintaining them. But this can only be done under the true banner—that banner which God has given you to be displayed.
“The fellowship of the saints” is but the association of God’s true worshippers in holy duties; particularly in the duty of worship. But they whom he will own as his true worshippers will always he distinguished for their exhibition and maintenance of sound principles, 2 Tim. 1:13, “Hold fast the form of sound words which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus;” 1 Tim. 6:3-5, “If any man teach otherwise and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness,” &c. Heb. 2:1, “Therefore we ought to give the more earnest head to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip.” Ponder well these texts, and see if they do not sustain the point, that God’s people ought to be, and are, noted for their adherence to his truth. They seek fellowship in the truth, and not in error.
Next read the 21st chapter of the Confession of Faith, carefully examining the Scripture proofs; together with what is taught with regard to the sanctification of the Sabbath in the Catechisms. You here see that in addition to the private exercises of God’s worship which are to be employed in the sanctification of the Sabbath, “the sound preaching, and conscionable hearing of the word,” &c., are mentioned. The whole time is to be thus occupied, except as necessity or mercy may prevent. There is no time allotted for unsound preaching or unconscionable hearing on the Sabbath. But, says one, though we may admit that occasional hearing is not right on the Sabbath, yet there can be no sin in it on any other day. This is as much as to say, that God will be pleased with a two-faced worshipper, who worships under a Calvinistic banner on Sabbath, and the next day approaches Him under an Arminian banner, thus in effect, and in fact, giving the lies to his ecclesiastical testimony on the Sabbath. As God’s witnesses we must bear a constant testimony for his truth, and never contradict ourselves and the truth in this manner. “Ye are my witnesses, saith the Lord.” Isa. 43:10. “A faithful witness will not lie.” Prov. 14:5.
But another only wants to go once in a great while. He supposes himself in the providence of God far removed from the bounds of his own church, and entirely destitute of public ordinances: but just at the corner of the farm there is a fine church edifice, where there is preaching every Sabbath, differing from his own only in what a vain world is pleased to term minor points, and non-essentials. He thinks, surely it is not wrong in this case to go occasionally. Ah! reader, we think even this would not be right. We think this position clearly sustained both by arguments drawn from reason and from Scripture.
When any object of a temporal nature is sought to be accomplished among men, agreement of purpose and concert of action are always sought, are really essential, and must be had in order to the success of the enterprise. Suppose, for example, it is desired to erect some complicated structure of framework, the completion of which in a given time would require the labor of a great number of men. The building, to “be fitly framed together,” will require the greatest care on the part of the subordinate workmen to follow precisely the directions of the master builder. But should some subordinate workman say, he would see no use for the marks and directions with which he is furnished, and proceed according to a plan of his own, asserting it to be at least as good as the other, it is manifest that the structure would be greatly damaged—through his insubordination; on which account his conduct would meet with just censure. He who would copy his example, or countenance his course, would by no means be free from the censures of the Master builder. Ministers are but subordinate workmen employed in the erection of Christ’s spiritual house—the gathering to himself of his spiritual seed. He has given all the same rule of direction. Some conform more and some less strictly to the pattern shown them by their Head. Think you to meet with the approbation of the Church’s Head while you willingly countenance those builder whom you believe to be building without due regard to the divine pattern? You cannot reasonably expect it.
But the practice of occasional hearing is clearly condemned by direct Scripture. In Amos 3:3, we have laid down a fundamental principle in regard to true fellowship; without agreement it cannot exist—“Can two walk together except they be agreed?” In order to true fellowship, there must be community of sentiment and feeling—“unity of heart and mind;” 1 Cor. 1:10. Those, then, who would hold fellowship with each other in the acceptable worship is conduct. But how can you claim such agreement with those against whose ecclesiastical testimony you feel bound to maintain an opposite testimony?
Another scripture testimony against this practice will be found, Prov. 19:27; “Cease, my son, to hear the instruction that causeth to err from the words of knowledge.” By “the words of knowledge” here, we are to understand the truths of God’s word; called by the apostle “wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ.” To err from them is to relinquish them, or to oppose them with opposite opinions or practices. Now there is a pretended instruction which, being the opposite of the truth,” causeth to err” from it. The duty here enjoined is to “cease to hear” such pretended instruction; guarding not only against the errors taught, but against countenancing the methods used for their propagation. This, then, explicitly condemns the practice we are opposing.
I have often wondered how members of any Psalm-singing church, and especially the United Presbyterian Church, can join with those who sing human composition in the public worship of God. That Church holds the following strong position on this subject: “That it is the will of God that the songs contained in the book of Psalms be sung in worship, both public and private, to the end of the world; and, in singing God’s praise, these songs should be employed to the exclusion of the devotional compositions of uninspired men:” and yet it is not uncommon to hear those who profess this article of faith relating their experience in worshipping with hymn-singing congregations. Do they think of their public profession when thus engaged? Do they not know that in this occasional practice they are flatly contradicting their own solemn testimony for the true psalmody? Is this anything short of perjury? In civil affairs, the man who disregards his oath is regarded with great severity; and should it be otherwise in the church?
What an ample verification of Paul’s declaration do we find in our day!—“For the time will come, when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts they shall heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.” Now, reader, farewell. I leave you to ponder this subject in your own heart, and trust you will be disposed to give due weight to whatever of the foregoing you shall, upon candid consideration, judge to be pertinent.
—Yours Fraternally, T. H.