"A Circle of Fellowship," or Independency?

Another question must now be considered, which unites itself to that which we have been just considering, We shall find that "independency" is one of the most successful means of evasion of scriptural discipline that could perhaps be imagined,- one of the most successful snares by which the children of God can be seduced into resistance to the will of God, while to themselves they seem to be standing only for the principles of the Word, against "confederacy," for purity, and unsectarian maintenance of the Body of Christ. We must therefore look seriously and with sufficient care into the matter : first, at what independency really is, and then at the fruits which make manifest the tree.
In its simplest and boldest form independency appears as the denial of any scriptural authority for any "circle of fellowship" outside of the individual gathing, wherever it may be; and this denial is made in the interests, as they imagine, of unsectarian recognition of the one Church only, which is the body of Christ. The formation and maintenance of any such circle is, they maintain, sectarian, and the adoption by such circle of a common discipline is Sectarianism full-blown. It constitutes the whole a "party," which may take the name of Christ, as some at Corinth did, and only be perhaps on that account to be the more avoided, as making that precious Name an instrument of division.
This charge is not, it may be, that of denying the Name of Christ, but it approaches it so nearly as to make it of the most serious consequence. Those who hold to a circle of fellowship and yet refuse the adoption of a sectarian name, with what is implied in this, can neither afford to give up their claim of gathering simply to the Name of Christ, nor accept the truth of what is charged against them. Let us examine then what is meant by these assertions, neither shaken from our convictions by their boldness, nor refusing to bring all these to the test of Scripture, as often as may be needful. That which is true will only gain in its hold on us by every fresh examination, and the only danger is in this being lightly and not thoroughly carried out. We should be thankful for any suggestions that awaken fresh inquiry.
Now what is a "circle of fellowship"? That all such is not forbidden must be believed by the objector himself, if he have but "two or three " gathered with himself in any local assembly. For this, I suppose, is not the whole "assembly of God" there, but something indefinitely less than this. Yet, here there must be a within and without, a being, in some sense, of us or not of us,-a something which is saved from being a party, not by having no walls or door, but by its having no arbitrary, no merely human, terms of admission. If it have no terms, then it is a mere rabble of lawless men, and as such to be refused by every Christian.
If you say, "No, it is Scripture to which we are subject," that brings in at once the implication that it is Scripture as you see it, not as your fellow-Christians see it; and you take your place as before the Lord, to be judged of Him in regard to this. Your being a separate somewhat, a "circle of fellowship," does not constitute you a party: you own Christians everywhere, as members of the body of Christ, and receive them wherever a scriptural hindrance to their reception does not exist, and you speak of being gathered simply to Christ's Name, without an idea that you are making the Name of Christ a badge, or sign, or instrument, of division.
Well, then, in the place, at least, there exists a gathering of Christians that I can recognize,- I suppose, ought to recognize,- apart from the whole body of Christians in the place. I say, "ought," because I have duties in regard to the assembling of ourselves together; and here alone I find those with whom I can assemble, no unscriptural condition being imposed on me. Were there another assembly in the same place and of the same character, there, I should have to ask why they were not together: for the sin of schism is a grave one in Scripture, and I should have of necessity to refuse this.
If, then, in this place, I repeat, there is a gathering that I can own, and must,- suppose, now, I went elsewhere and lived - found perhaps there also one that I had equally to own as gathered to Christs Name alone, would it be right for me in the new place to refuse to own as a separate company, those in that from which I came, whom, when I was there, I had to own, and whom, if I were now there, I should have to own? Is it possible that my going from New York to Boston should make that wrong for me at Boston which at New York would be quite right, and if I went back there, would be right again? If so, that is independency in earnest; or else it is the most curious shifting of right and wrong that one can conceive of; morality shifting every few miles of the road, whichever way I travel. And yet, if not, we are connected in principle, to a "circle of fellowship"!
The recognition of each other by such gatherings throughout the world is, therefore, right; and every. thing opposed to it is false and wrong. Nay, it is impossible to maintain practically, if principles are of any value to us. For, were I taking the journey spoken of, must I not inquire for those who are of one mind with us in Boston? and would those in Boston expect anything else of me? To refuse a circle of fellowship may be held as a theory: the fact will always be discordant with the theory. The theory itself cannot be truthfully accepted by any one who has given it any sober reflection,. except it mean independency of the grossest and narrowest kind; that is, associating where one will, and recognizing obligations nowhere but where I will. And this would be indeed the most perfect sectarianism that could well exist.
But we are to recognize the whole body of Christ! Surely, but not their unscriptural associations. In the interests of the body of Christ I refuse denominations; but in the same interests I am bound to accept the circle of unsectarian fellowship. The gracious words which, providing for a day of failure and confusion, sanction the two or three gathered to the Lord's blessed Name, sanction such gatherings in every place, and therefore a circle of such gatherings. It would be as sectarian to refuse identification with these as to take our place with the various denominations. Nay, it would be more so. Nor would it save us from this, to say we were acting for the good of the whole Church of God, when from Scripture itself the disproof is so easy.
Now, another step.
To accept these is to accept their discipline. For the Lord's sanction of the gathering is the express sanction of their discipline. Of course, I do not mean by that that they can add to Scripture, or invent a character of discipline that is not found there; nor yet that He could sanction what might be a mistaken judgment. He is the Holy and the True, the Lord and Master of His people always: and that is quite enough to say as to all this. But authority for discipline these "two or three" have; and woe to him who resists its rightful exercise:
"If he hear not the Church, let him be to thee as a heathen man and a publican" is said of just such feeble gatherings as these.
It is plain that precisely the same thing is to be said for the discipline as for the gathering itself: if it is to be respected at A where it is exercised, it is just as much to be respected at B or at C. If it be the decision of a local matter, then the Lord has plainly put it into the hands of those who are in circumstances to judge of it aright, though protest and appeal are surely to be listened to, and they are bound to satisfy consciences where honestly exercised about it.
As to a question of truth, as such it affects all consciences; it can be put before all: no local gathering has authority in any such matter; it would be making a creed to be subscribed. The truth as to Christ is a deeper and more vital matter, for we are gathered to His Name. Where truth of this kind is subverted the gathering exists no more, except as an instrument in the enemy's hand, and is to be refused, with all who take part with it.
If on the other hand, the question be of facts, then those who have them are bound (if these affect more than the local gathering) to make them known to their brethren; and here a circular letter may rightly have its place, not to establish a rule or principle of action, but as a witness: which of course is open to question, as all facts are, if there be contrary evidence, or that given be insufficient. No circular has authority in itself: it is purely a question of facts and of the credibility of the testimony.
With these limitations, which are the results of the frailty and fallibility which are common to us all, we have necessarily to own a circle of fellowship and the discipline connected with it, if we would be free from the charge of real independency.
And real independency is not of God, but always and everywhere acts against Him. It is to make the members of the same body say to each other, "we have no need of you," and to deny the unity of the Spirit which should pervade the body. The more we lament and refuse the sectarianism which exists, the more are we compelled, and shall rejoice to own the body of Christ wherever possible. And this circle of fellowship, while it is not the "body," furnishes us with the means of owning this in a truthful and holy way, so far as the state of ruin in which the Church exists permits it to be done. With love to all Christ's own,- with an open door for the reception of all according to the conditions of truth and holiness,- such a circle is not sectarian, but a protest against it, while the meeting that refuses connection with it is sectarian in fullest reality. And this is what is meant by the "ground" of the one body. It is as different as possible from any claim to be the one body, and does not in the least imply any sectarian conditions of intelligence in order to communion. The maintenance of a common dis-cipline is in no wise sectarian, but part (and an essen-tial part) of that communion itself: absolutely necessary if the holiness of God be the same thing wherever it is found, and not a thing for the "two or three" anywhere to trifle with as they list.
Independency, in setting aside the practical unity of the Church of God, sets aside a main guard of holi-ness itself. It makes this no object of common care; it does not seek common exercise about it. It releases from the sense of responsibility as to the house of God: it is my own house I am to keep clean after my own fashion. And this real laxity as to the people of God at large (but which is so consoling to an unexercised conscience, that it is the great charm undoubtedly to multitudes to-day) naturally has the effect of lowering one's estimate of holiness altogether, and so prevents my own house being kept really clean.
Where, however, a circle of fellowship is in fact maintained, along with and spite of the protest against it, or where there is not the maintenance of a common discipline - where perhaps as the natural fruit of independency also, the unholy principle is contended for that an assembly cannot be judged for that which would compel the judgment of an individual, there, as is natural to expect, any local discipline almost can be evaded by a little dexterity. If the gathering at B will not receive you from A, it will from C, and C will receive you from A. No one is safe anywhere from the violation of a discipline which he himself recognizes as a scriptural one. Any par. ticular person, if he be not too prominent, becomes lost to the eye amid the maze of bewildering differences. He who has conscience, and would fain be clear, has soon to resign himself to a general hope that what looks so like confusion will in the end conserve the interests of holiness; or in despair, to wash his hands of what he cannot avoid.
Yet it is an ensnaring system; for in this way pessimism and optimism both can find apology for it, and go on with it. One gets free of an amazing amount of trouble; and while not seeming to have given up all ecclesiastical ties, as many have, yet be practically as free as they for the gospel and from the wearying responsibility of being one's brother's keeper. Why should we be? when we only get our trouble for our pains, find a narrow path instead of the broad, open one, which is so pleasant to all of us, and for this have only to shut our eyes at the proper time, and ignore what it seems we cannot help. And in fact the countless small breaches of independency make less show than the terrible rents Which we are exposed to otherwise. Why not let this sad-faced Merarite go, with his pins and cords of the tabernacle always getting into entanglement, and be content with Kohath and with Gershom?
Still, if the TABERNACLE OF THE LORD is to be set up in the wilderness, how shall we do without the pins and cords?
In result it will be found that it is the truth of God which suffers, and tends to pass away and be lost. What wonder when we begin with choosing what we will have of it, and what we will discard? Fellowship becomes a thing of most uncertain quality: and what wonder, if obedience to the Word have anything to do with fellowship? Worship is largely displaced in behalf of service: for we have lost the necessary pins and cords. We may go on with the help of what truth we can still borrow and find room for; but the truth tends somehow continually to slip away from us; and in the jangle of many utterances, it is ever getting to be of less account.
One's voice may be little heard in a day like this; but I would do what I can to press upon the people of the Lord first of all their Master's claim. I press that this independency, little as one may imagine it, little as many may care to entertain it even as a question, means ultimately shipwreck to the truth of Christ, because it means independency of Him. One may find in it plenty of associates, for it makes little demands upon one and gives the kind of liberty which is so coveted today. The authority of Christ is not in it. It may support itself by the help of other names - names in repute as Christians too- and be in honor. It cannot have the commendation which Philadelphia, spite of its "little power," finds from her gracious Lord :- "THOU HAST KEPT MY WORD, AND NOT DENIED MY NAME."