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WHERE TO WORSHIP
By Ethelbert W. Bullinger
[Selected Writings II. Holiness: God’s Way Better Than Man’s. 1999, Invictus for "Truth For Today Bible Fellowship. Lafayette, IN.” Pp. 72-75]
Several inquirers have asked us, from time to time, as to where and with whom they ought to worship.
We have hitherto refrained from answering such questions, because we are not directors of the conscience, but ministers of the Word. However, we have lately read Two letters, written by Mr. A. N. Groves in 1834 and 1836, which have been so helpful to ourselves, that we feel we ought to pass them on to others. They are too long for reproduction here, so that we shall have to be content with a few extracts, and must condense the rest in our own words, omitting what is purely ephemeral and personal. We ought, however, to state, to make the words more intelligible, that Mr. Groves was associated with Mr. J. G. Bellett and T. N. Darby in 1827, in Dublin and Plymouth; and that one of the letters is addressed to the latter; while Mr. Bellett and others always spoke of Mr. Groves as "the father of these principles,” which united them in fellowship.
The subject is entitled: Catholic Christianity; and Party Communion, and they deal with "the principles of union and communion in the Church of God.” [Now at the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, Christian Brethren Archive Catalogue – G: GROVES (Anthony Norris) Catholic Christianity; and party communion, delineated in two letters, etc. London, Morgan & Chase, [n.d.] 16p. 7". (G59736) 21. (Listed at: http://rylibweb.man.ac.uk/data2/spcoll/cba/cbalistg.htm)]
"Let us then for a moment dwell on the principles that ought to regulate our intercourse as Christians, of whatever sect or name, and examine to what extent we are free, and to what extent bound; or rather what are the limits within which our communion with an individual as a Christian, or a body of individuals in public worship is to be confined.” The principles of communion of the church on earth must be those which shall prevail in Heaven; and the more nearly they assimilate now, the more perfect they will be.
What are those principles? Loving all whom Christ loves, because they bear His impress. If it be asked how are these to be distinguished? We may look for the Holy Ghost to help us. If it be asked what is to be done with their errors? These are no bar to communion, unless they bar Christ from the erring brother’s heart. While we hope Christ lingers, let us linger; and rather be behind than before, to quit; in pitiful remembrance of our own iniquities and unnumbered errors. So long as we judge Christ to be dwelling with a man, that is our warrant for receiving him; and for the charity of that judgment that declares Him not there, we are responsible. But we must stay on the ground given by Peter, seeing God has given him the like gift He has given unto us. Who are we that we should withstand God? And as to his errors, we must bear them, and seeing they cannot be removed from us, (till, with sorrow, they are removed from him) we must bear this burden for the Lord’s sake, for our brother’s sake and for our own sake; remembering that, perhaps while we are bearing his burdens, he is bearing ours, and thus we are mutually fulfilling the law of Christ in bearing them for each other. We are to love and bear with him, because Christ does, be other things as they may.
Then, as to communion with congregations, we must consider ourselves in the double position (1) of individuals who have duties to ourselves, and (2) of members of the Body of Christ, and immense brotherhood, embracing the universal church throughout the world, in all the congregations of the saints, where Christ still walks amidst the golden candlesticks, notwithstanding unnumbered weaknesses and errors.
Our first duty in selecting the congregation with whom we should statedly worship should be to consider where the form is most Scriptural; where the ministrations are most spiritual; where there is the sweetest savour of Christ; where our own souls are most instructed in the Word; and where the Holy Spirit is most manifestly present with those who minister and those who hear.
As to our liberty in Christ, to worship with any congregation under heaven where God manifests Himself to save and to bless, can there be in any Christian mind, a doubt? If my Lord should say to me in any of the many congregations of the church: "What doest thou here?” I would reply: "seeing Thou wert here to save and sanctify, I felt it would be safe to be with Thee.” If He again said (as indeed He may among most of us): "Dids’t thou not see abominations here, an admixture of that which was un-Scriptural, and the absence of that which was Scriptural, and in some points error, at least in your judgment?” My answer would be: "Yea, Lord; but I dared not call that place unholy, where Thou wert present to bless; nor by refusing communion in worship, reject those as unholy whom Thou hadst by Thy saving power evidently sanctified and set apart for Thine own.”
Our reason for rejecting corporate bodies is that God doth not manifest Himself among them, though He may pluck some individuals as brands from the burning. To these we cry, standing on the outside: "Come out of her, my people; come out of her.”
Among the others, we stand with Christ in the midst. We would linger, with the Lord, in testimony rather than cry like Edom in the day of Judah’s sorrow – "Down with her, down with her, even to the ground.”
To the question, are we not countenancing error by this plan? Our answer is, that, if we must appear to countenance error, or to discountenance brotherly love, we prefer the former, hoping that our lives and our tongues may be allowed by the Lord, so intelligibly to speak, that at last our righteousness shall be allowed to appear. But, if not, we may feel we have chosen the better part, since we tarried only for our Lord’s departure.
But so long as Christ dwells in an individual, or the Holy Spirit works in the midst of a congregation, blessing the ministrations to the conversion and edification of souls, we dare not denounce, or formally withdraw from either, for fear of the awful sin of schism, of sin against Christ and His Mystical Body.
If we depart from these fundamental principles, we shall, instead of standing forth as witnesses for the truth, be standing forth as witnesses against error, and have lowered ourselves from heaven to earth in our position as witnesses.
Let our aim be to manifest forth that life we have received from Christ by seeking to find that life in others; so that, as Christ had received them, should we also to the glory of God the Father. Let us share with them in part, though we cannot in all, their services. In fact, as we have received them for their life, we cannot reject them for their systems.
The moment the witnessing for the common life as our bond gives place to a witnessing against errors, by separation of persons, that moment the narrowest and most bigoted mind amongst us will rule, and the enlarged heart will yield before the narrowest conscience; while light, and not life, will be the measure of communion.
It is surely better to bear with their evils, than to separate from their good.
It is useless to force others to act in uniformity further than they feel uniformity. Otherwise we merely afford a ready outlet to the propensities of the flesh under the appearance of spiritual authority and zeal for the truth.
And the end of it all will be that, though only brethren in a Father’s house, many will exercise more than a Father’s power, without a Father’s heart of mercy.
Some of Mr. Groves’s words are almost prophetic. He says that where all this is the case; where others have grown up in this system, without being led into it through suffering and sorrow, there will be felt, overwhelmingly, the authority of men; who will be known more by what they witness against that what they witness for; and that, practically, this will, in the end, prove that they witness against all except themselves, having a Shibboleth, which, though it may be different from all others, will be just as real.