Christian Liberty of Preaching and Teaching the Lord Jesus Christ: Part 2

Acts 8:4  •  16 min. read  •  grade level: 11
Thus far then, in the first case, for speaking in the church. I advocate no system. I mourn over the departure of many of the comely part or parts, however, on which God set comeliness. These passages of the word I take as scriptural evidence that the confining of the edification of the church to nominal office alone has not the scriptures to rest upon. I speak not here of elders or appointed teachers, their value, or the contrary; observing only that grace, and grace alone, should be our standard of valuation, that in the arrangements of the Holy Ghost it is only the gift of God which gives any title to office in the church, or to its claims (nominal office merely as such having no claim upon any one). I speak simply of the one point—the wrongness of a Christian speaking in the church as such. One point—and that is a most important one—in this part of the subject remains to be noticed. If we are reminded of the dangers arising from all teaching, it is admitted at once; for it is admitted that here, if anywhere, mischief would spring up. But looking to scripture, we are not warned against it, upon the ground of its being wrong as regards office, nor because of its effect merely on others. And warning against it is given, as being one of the things in which, as evil will more or less have a tendency to show itself, so the remedy is applied to the spirit from whence it flows. “My brethren, be not many teachers, for so shall ye heap to yourselves greater condemnation.” Here again the warning itself shows that there was no such restriction of office as is now supposed, for thus it would have been, “You have no business to preach at all, for you are not ordained.” But no, the correction was turned to moral profit, not to formal distinction of pre-eminent office.
But the question becomes more important when considered in the second case, viz., as to speaking out of the church, because it precludes the testimony of the gospel by a vast number of persons who may have faithfully borne it to others. Let us inquire into the scriptural facts. In the first place, then, all the Christians preached: “They that were scattered abroad went everywhere, preaching the word” (Acts 8:44Therefore they that were scattered abroad went every where preaching the word. (Acts 8:4)); and those who were scattered were all, except the apostles. Some critics have endeavored to elude this plain passage, by saying that it is only speaking, which one not in office may do. But a reference to the original at once disproves the assertion. It is εὐαγγελιζόμενοι—evangelizing the word; and we read elsewhere that “the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:19, 2019Now they which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen travelled as far as Phenice, and Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to none but unto the Jews only. 20And some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene, which, when they were come to Antioch, spake unto the Grecians, preaching the Lord Jesus. (Acts 11:19‑20)). Now, unless all the church were ordained (I think they are to preach, as far as they have ability), here is the simplest case possible, the case in point. The first general preaching of the gospel which the Lord blessed beyond the walls of Jerusalem knew no distinction between ordained and unordained. It had not entered into their minds then that they who knew the glory of Christ were not to speak of it where and how God enabled them. “And the hand of the Lord was with them.”
Paul preached without any other mission than seeing the glory of the Lord and His word; in a synagogue too, and boasts of it.1 And he gives his reason for Christians preaching elsewhere, as it is written, “I believed, and therefore have I spoken; we also believe, and therefore speak” (2 Cor. 4:1313We having the same spirit of faith, according as it is written, I believed, and therefore have I spoken; we also believe, and therefore speak; (2 Corinthians 4:13)). Apollos preached; “he spake and taught,” “diligently taught the things of the Lord,” and of him it is said that when Paul would have sent him from Ephesus to Corinth, he would not go. Yet so far from being ordained before beginning to preach, he knew only the baptism of John. And Aquila and Priscilla took him unto them, and expounded unto him the way of the Lord more perfectly. And then, continuing his labors as before, “he helped them much which had believed;” “and mightily convinced the Jews, and that publicly, showing by the scripture that Jesus was the Christ.”
Again, at Rome, many of the brethren waxing bold by Paul's bonds, preached the word without fear. And here let it be added, for the sake of those who have doubts respecting this passage, that the word is κηρύσσουσιν heralds; which shows the character of the work. The same habits of wandering preaching we find in the 2nd and 3rd Epistles of John guarded not by ordination, but by doctrine. Nor in truth is there such a thing mentioned in scripture as ordaining to preach the gospel. We have seen that Paul preached before he went out on his work from Antioch. Now if any plead his being set apart there, still the question is not met; for, as before stated, I reason not against such setting apart, but against the assertion that Christians as such are incompetent to preach. But the case alleged, if it proves anything as to the question at issue, proves that the power of ordaining, as well as of preaching, was not specially connected with office, and nothing more. The only other passage which, though not commonly quoted, seems to me nearer the purpose, is the apostle's command, “The same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:22And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also. (2 Timothy 2:2)). But the thing committed here was the doctrine, and proves tradition, if anything, not ordination; for it does not appear that they were ordained for the purpose.
I have now produced ample evidence from scripture to a fair mind. My object has been simply to show the general liberty of Christian men to speak, whether in or out of the church, according to the several gifts which God may bestow upon them, without need of the seal of human authority; and I say that the contrary assertion is a novelty in Christianity. I have abstained from diffusive discussions upon what has led to it, or the principles which are involved in it. I put the scriptural fact to any one's conscience; and I call upon any one to produce any scripture, positively or on principle, forbidding to Christians the liberty of preaching, or requiring Episcopal or other analogous ordination for the purpose.
And here I will advert to that which is commonly adduced upon the subject—the case of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. It is remarkable that those who rest upon it should pass by a case immediately preceding, bearing upon this immediate subject: that of Eldad. and Medad prophesying in the camp, though they had not come up to the door of the tabernacle, because the Spirit rested upon them. “Would God,” said the meek man of God, “that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them.” That which was here typically proposed, the pouring out of the Spirit upon all, was in principle fulfilled in the Christian dispensation. Then, subsequently, Korah, Dathan, and Abiram acted not under the influence and energy of the Spirit in testifying to the people, but would have assumed authority—the kingship of Moses, and the priesthood of Aaron. This was their fault, which very outrage is committed by those who attempt to defend themselves by urging the case before us: seeing that they are taking to themselves that kingship and priesthood which are Christ's alone, and setting up themselves as the only legitimate channels of blessing; and usurping His authority again on the other hand by excluding those who have the Spirit of God from exercising that which they have by the authority of God Himself.2
These things here spoken of were typical of our dispensation, as also the apostle states; and the conclusion is, that they make universal preaching desirable, and the assumption of priesthood a sin. To the same purpose is the argument of the apostle applied (Heb. 5): the exclusion from the office of priesthood, save by such call as Christ had; in which, in one sense, all believers are partakers—in another sense, He is alone, unaccompanied into the holy place. In a word, the claim of unrestricted liberty of preaching by Christians is right. The assumption of priesthood by any, save as all believers are priests, is wrong. This is the dispensation of the outpouring of the Spirit here, qualifying for preaching any here who can do so—in a word, for speaking of Jesus (for the distinction between speaking and preaching is quite unsustainable by scripture, as anyone may see if he takes the trouble), and in which Christ alone exercises the priesthood within the veil, in the presence of God for us.
This, then, is the force of these passages. The type of the pouring out of the Spirit in the camp with the gracious wish of Moses is the characteristic, the essential distinction of Christianity. Accordingly we find its primary presentation in the world, the Spirit poured out on the hundred and twenty who were assembled together, who therefore began to speak as the Spirit gave them utterance. And Peter standing up explains to the Jews that they were not drunk, but that it was the thing spoken of by Joel, the undistinguished pouring out of the Spirit upon men of all classes—servants and hand-maidens, their sons and their daughters prophesying—the pouring out of the Spirit upon all flesh. This was the characteristic of its agency, and this we have seen acted upon in the subsequent history; to deny this is to mistake the power of the dispensation, and, I will add, to lose it. And what is the consequence? Irregular action goes on, and cannot be restrained; for kingly power cannot be assumed to such purpose, or they are taking the part of Dathan and Abiram.
But the power of the Spirit, in which God would give competency to restrain evil, has been slighted. And nominal office, which has been relied on, affords no remedy, unless the rights which the Roman Catholic system has assumed be attached to it, which is the assumption of power not given to the church at all. It is not for me to assert what is the evil of the present day. I am sure it is not the overflowing boldness of testimony against evil; and if evil exists, the remedy is not in seeking to hinder or to reject (for hindered it surely will not and cannot be) the title of preaching the word which the Spirit of the Lord gives to whomsoever He listeth, but the cordial co-operation of those who hold the truth, by which the common energy (and common energy is infinite energy in this matter) may be exercised against all which does not hold the truth, and for the “seeking out of Christ's sheep in the midst of this naughty world.”
One important advantage from taking God's order instead of man's is at once seen—that men will have their place and agency, whether within or without the assembly of the faithful, by virtue, not of nominal official situations formally set up, but of the gifts which God has given them: a most important principle in the difference between Babylon and the divine economy. In truth, there are few things more important to remember, and especially in the present state of things, when human prescription regulates everything in matters of religion, that for anything but grace to be our criterion of station in the church, save in the awful responsibility of the individual, “these sinners against their own soul” must be wrong. In the last dispensation there was externally appointed order independent of qualification; in the present the manifold grace and gifts of God in His church are the only means of adjusting and blending in true harmony the various parts and offices of the body of Christ.
With regard to one part of the work, evangelizing, it is clear that a large portion of those who preach officially are incapacitated for it by their own act, as being shut up within restricted limits, and universally without any reference whatever to their individual qualifications, whether teachers, pastors, or evangelists, &c., or to the particular necessities of the station in which they are to labor. To such it must be obvious that the deficiency cannot be otherwise supplied than by those who may be willing to allow God to appoint the field of their operations, and to do the work of the Lord wheresoever they shall be led by Him to labor for His name's sake (3 John 77Because that for his name's sake they went forth, taking nothing of the Gentiles. (3 John 7)), and who will be owned by Him though a Diotrephes may reject them. Nothing argues greater want of submission to Christ—greater proof of preference of man's authority to the Lord's, than for any to discredit the free and unrestrained bearing forth of the gospel of the grace of God, who have placed themselves in circumstances where they are obliged to stop short of the work, for fear they should be discredited themselves. It is a work which they cannot do, which they have themselves put it out of their power to do, at least without utter inconsistency; for in so doing, they would be acting in defiance of the authority which has placed them in their prescribed position. Such is their situation, that in following the Spirit of God in their work they would, in most cases, act unrighteously, for it would be against the authority which they recognize and act under.
Take a case, by no means uncommon, which illustrates the dilemma in which they place themselves. A large tract of country is destitute of the gospel.
One in whose heart God has put the desire and whose mouth He has opened to speak of His love, goes, preaches there, and is blessed—gathers out of darkness into light many souls. The district is already full of persons professing to hold office in the church of Christ, but who are not shepherds. What is the laborer to do? leave them for Socinians or enthusiasts to catch, or unheeded altogether? There is no godly righteousness in this. But it becomes a matter of faithfulness to Christ that he should preach to those who are ready to perish; yea, it is a necessity occasioned by the systems which sanction or have sanctioned the idol shepherds, by whom he is surrounded. Now which must an authorized minister, even though a Christian, recognize? He must recognize those idol shepherds, and he cannot recognize the faithful man of God; that is, he must associate himself with ungodliness because it is in nominal office, and not with the Spirit of God because out of it. But he has placed himself in a position in which he must be wrong either way. For if he did not own those shepherds, he would be acting in dereliction of his own responsibilities to the system to whose authority he has voluntarily submitted himself.
Hence also we learn the answer to the question, “Why not take the nominal office?” Because the source is so vitiated that many conscientious men cannot identify themselves with it; and a consideration which, to one who habitually waits on the Lord, is of no small account, that the work or the scene of his operations is not regulated by the Lord's guidance, and the varied exigencies of His service—exigencies which can be met only by entire and unfettered looking to the Spirit of the Lord, Who is the Spirit of true order, for doing the Lord's work according to His own time, place, and purpose—considerations without which His servants are but περιεργαζόμενοι, busy out of place, whatever may be the apparent result of their labors, and which in many instances amount to the acquirement of a positive disability to fulfill the office to which God may have appointed the individual, as in the case of an evangelist.
I would make one further observation, suggested by the present question. In observing the infinity of contending interests with which the church is now filled, the “wars and fightings” amongst brethren, the restlessness of those who are spending their power and spirituality in defending one human system against another, the inquiry solemnly forces itself upon us whilst witnessing the surrounding scene of excitement—For what are we to contend? The apostle has answered the question: “contend earnestly for the faith which was once delivered to the saints.” Let the inquiry then be calmly proposed to all our minds, For what are we contending If it be for anything of secondary derivation, God cannot own it: the contention is for our own, and not for the things of Christ; for nothing since delivered is of His Spirit.
The preceding considerations do assuredly tend to show that opinions, supported by ever so fair an appearance of antiquity, are worthless, being deeply injurious to the glory of God, unless based upon His word. The end in view will have been fully answered if but one servant of Christ should be added to the field of labor; or the doubts removed from the mind of but one brother who hesitates to acknowledge as his fellow-workers those who have been called by the same Spirit. And let it be observed that in this, as in all things, the liberty of the believer is not the spirit of insubordination, but of entire subjection to the Spirit and the church of God, wheresoever they may be found; not the spirit of enthusiasm, but of a sound mind, of a mind at one with God, which alone gives righteous judgment. And let the people of God be waiting on Him for His guidance. It is a time in which those who act with the simplest purpose will carry the work with them (for it is a day in which God is separating realities from forms), as that which can alone stand the universal dislocation which every institution is undergoing, and which the Spirit of God shall, and can alone, go through unscathed, and that they are led by Him unmarred and unhurt.
May God work by His Spirit abundantly. “The harvest truly is plenteous, but the laborers are few; pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest that He will send forth laborers into His harvest.”
J. N. D.