III.A Lover of Order enquires whether it ought not to be a rule in all churches that persons who do not attend for six months should be withdrawn from for non-attendance?
Our reply is, first, that we solemnly question the right of churches to make rules at all. The Lord Jesus is the only legislator in the church. and where he has not left us a command it is better to abstain from inventing one, lest we receive for doctrines the commandments of men. The genius of the gospel is freedom, and the spirit of every rightminded church is not law but love. At the same time, persons who forsake the assembling of themselves together are evidently walking disorderly, unless they have some valid reason for non-attendance, and therefore they ought to be diligently looked after by the officers of the church, and enquiry made into the cause of their absence. If that cause should lie in backsliding and indifference, they should then come under discipline, and should be visited according to the excellent custom of our churches: after this comes the withdrawal, if the case be found to be incorrigible, and utterly hopeless. Where general laxness of conduct is suspected but cannot be proved, or where the exposure of a fault would only gender strife and scandal, it is wise to withdraw from the offender for the unquestionable fault of non-attendance; but in no case for that fault alone, until every means has been used. To cut off persons merely because they have not been to the communion for six months is an idle method on the part of the church, and frequently involves great unkindness towards the individuals. Our experience leads us to know that a large portion of the absentees are not fit subjects to be dealt with under a hard and fast rule. For instance, a person reduced in circumstances, but quite unwilling to make his circumstances known, had pawned the garments in which he was wont to appear among us. The same spirit which led him to keep his wants private induced him also to worship among strangers while his raiment was shabby. I do not justify the spirit, neither dare I say a hard word against it, but a gentle rebuke and a brotherly gift soon enabled the afflicted friend to fill up his place to his own intense delight. In another instance, a member had gone to Australia and back upon a voyage as steward, and reappeared shortly after enquiry had been made; his exclusion would have greatly pained the mind of a most worthy brother, and would have been an outrage upon Christian love. A mother of many children had also been very ill herself for some considerable time, during which the family had removed, so that she could not be found, then followed an interesting event which increased her cares, and not for some months could she again occupy her place among us. Her husband, an ungodly man, would not take the trouble to communicate her change of abode, and thus by the heartless rule suggested above she would have been excluded from the church: our knowledge of her gracious character led us to wait, and she returned to worship and to the Lord's table a the first possible moment. Many varieties of circumstances may thus render absence no sin; but surely only for sin, removal to another church, or utter failure to find out a brother's whereabouts after earnest searching, ought we to erase a name from the roll of our membership.
If a sheep has strayed let us seek it; to disown it in a hurry is not the Master's method. Ours is to be the labor and the care, for we are overseers of the flock of Christ to the end that all may be presented faultless before God. One month's absence from the house of God is, in some cases, a deadly sign of a profession renounced, while in others a long absence is an affliction to be sympathised with, and not a crime to be capitally punished. I know the lovers of rule are full of arguments, but houses and families under rigid rules are never happy places to live in life in its health and its disease cannot be legislated for like stone and iron. The best plan is to deal with every case on its own merits, without regard either to rule or precedent, looking only to the great general principles of the Word of God, and asking the guidance of the Holy Spirit. There are sins enough in the world without our increasing them by new commands. More quarrels in churches grow out of rules than out of anything else; the sooner they are all burned like the Ephesian books the better, Christ's Spirit leads as not into bondage. We cannot endure the letter which killeth, much less that which buries men alive.
IV.Ruth would like to know what can be done to stop scandal in a church.
We suggest to her that enough cotton in both ears would prevent her hearing it, and the filling of her mouth all the day long with the praise of God would, render it impossible for her tongue to spread it. This would suffice for her personally. She, however, we suspect, rather wants us to suggest a remedy for the habit of scandal in others. Really we do not know of anything short of the grace of God. While hearts remain unrenewed, tongues will be full of bitterness; and in gracious people while corruption remains, there will be a measure of mouth disease too. Dogs delight to bark and bite, "for 'tis their nature to." None can rule or tame human tongues except the Omnipotent himself. Solomon talked of hot coals of juniper, and such-like fiery remedies, but we question whether they would be effectual even if they could be applied. One rule we endeavor to follow with regard to gossip, viz.: let the thing die a natural death. If any one reports to us that here is a dirty pool near us, we go in another direction, but never dream of sitting down on its margin to take long sniffs, neither do we indulge the practice of stirring it, and poking a pole to the very bottom of it. We told a friend lately, who said that it was our duty to interpose in the squabbles of another church, that we did not carry a brush in our pocket to scrub all the pigs we met with, and we fancied that if we did we should soon get some of the mire on our own hands. Scandal is like the hydra which lives by being killed, and multiplies itself with every cut you make at it. It is like a very bad house to let, which is ill-drained, has a leaky roof, and is generally out of repair;it is best let alone. If dogs are asleep don't wake them, they may bark; and if they are barking don't interfere with them, for they may bite.
"But surely, it is our duty to put out the fire of strife!" Yes, but what is the best. way? Will you put it out by heaping on more fuel? Will poking the fire damp it? Why, even pouring oily words on it will not, quench the flame. Very few people have wisdom enough to deal with scandals aright, and these generally prefer the method of letting them burn themselves out. Be deaf, be blind, be dead to gossip, and it will grow disgusted with you and select a more sensitive victim. To bring matters before a court of law, or even before the church, is to honor the gossip and to lower yourself. "What are the wild waves saying?" They are saying more sense than the tongues of rumor; worry yourself about the rough music of the roaring sea if you will, but about tongues, male and female, concern not your heart, O Ruth; or, sapient reader, be thou equally insensible thereto. When a bull offered to toss a little party who were crossing a meadow, courage was for fighting the irate monster, folly talked of taking him by the horns, enthusiasm thought of jumping on his back, credulity tried the virtue of a suddenly opened umbrella, and obstinacy dared Old Taurus to interfere with him, but prudence got over the stile into the next field, and I went with him, and mean to do the same next time. Shall I help you over the gate, Miss Ruth?
V.S. H. C. wants advice as to the sudden introduction of fresh subjects before a church-meeting when no previous notice has been given to the pastor, the officers, or the church. Should it be allowed or not?
Surely, common sense alone is needed to form a judgment upon this point. Would such a thing be borne with in any but an assembly of idiots? The men of the world have needed no enlightenment upon so simple a matter; hath not nature herself taught them how to act? This folly, which we fear is committed in some churches, is but another illustration of our Lord's saying, "The children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light." The rules observed in debates in Parliament, in public meetings, ay, and in the meanest Hole in the Wall, where tinkers and tailors ventilate their treason, are often superior to those which are maintained in the church of God. I speak this to the shame of many. Disorder and confusion worse confounded are allowed, nay, even invited and fostered by the disregard of the plainest dictates of common sense in certain gatherings styled church-meetings, which might in such cases more descriptively be called ecclesiastical bear-gardens. We remember an instance in which, before much of the fit business of the assembly had been transacted, a member suddenly proposed a resolution, or rather raved out a denunciation concerning the sacramental wine; he was followed by a second, who wished to abolish pew-rents, and he by a third reformer, who wanted meetings where everybody could speak as some sort of spirit might move him; and, when the third sat down, a fourth advocated the frequent change of deacons, hinting that those in office had lost the confidence of the members. The church was so worn and harassed with impromptu suggestions of this kind, that both pastor and people abhorred the very name of church-meeting and suddenly discovered that, for the protection of the quiet many, the noisy few ought not to be allowed to ride their various hobbies at pleasure. Great was the relief when it was resolved to end such disorder by following the custom of all decent society, and begin no discussion without notice, and none even with notice which did not come within the province of the assembly. No new law was wanted; the old command to "do all things decently and in order" was quite sufficient. The mere fact of a man's being a professed Christian does not entitle him to act as a savage; and a church-meeting, because it is a spiritual assembly, is none the more entitled to behave like a mob of aborigines. No society of any kind can long subsist if it disregards the ordinary laws which regulate human assemblies. These, it is true, are not incorporated in the Scriptures, because there is no need to reveal by inspiration what half-a-grain of sense will show us. We might as well ask for Scripture for wearing flannel in winter time, or using gas or candles at our evening services, as for regulations for conducting our meetings for church business. Where reason suffices revelation is not to be expected. Every custom of assembly, which is founded in necessity and promotes order, goodwill, and fairness, is virtually contained in the golden rule, to do to others as we would that they should do to us. No man would wish others to take him by surprise with new proposals which he had not been permitted to consider, but must vote upon helter-skelter on the spot; neither would he wish another to make a sacred assembly the platform for enunciating views hostile to his judgment and foreign to the purport of the association; therefore, no man has a right to inflict the same wrong upon others, and no set of men are doing justice if they allow such perpetual infractions of the law of love. When Marcus Arethusa was stripped naked, smeared with honey, and stung to death by wasps, he was in an enviable position, compared with a minister whose people consider it to be part of their Christian liberty to agitate him and the church whenever they please. However great may be the good man's faults he does not deserve so condign a punishment. An American cowhiding, a Russian knouting, a Turkish bastinado, or a Red Indian scalping, are milder forms of punishment than the doom of presiding over a lawless assembly, by whom the rules of decency and justice are despised as worldly and unfit to be regarded by spiritual men.
S. H. C. has seen, we hope, a solitary ease, and we have known the only other example. Let us trust so. We have no reason to believe that the evil is common. We fear that it lingers in our churches, but it can surely be only in those uncivilised parts whereas yet knives and forks are unknown luxuries, and reading remains a stupendous mystery. If such conduct be tolerated in assemblies of educated men, we can only say that they invite disquietude, they court division, and will not be long before they reap the reward of their unwisdom.
In every cause due notice must be given of any unusual business, and it will be at least courteous that this should be given to the pastor and officers. A member ought to hesitate a long time before he proceeds contrary to the judgment of the officers; and the Church should always have an opportunity of considering whether or no the question to be submitted is one which they care to discuss. The ordinary rules of public meetings are the best guide for the chairman of a church-meeting, and should not be disregarded.
Happy is the church which has no history but that of continued increase and edification. When debates are among us they create discord, and there is an end first to fellowship and next to usefulness. May the Holy Spirit preserve us all in love and unity, and then the question before us will never be raised.