One of the most important and valuable functions of the Society of Friends is to bear witness openly to the world to the great principle of the freedom of the Christian ministry. By this expression the writer means, not merely the narrow advocacy of a ministry which costs nothing to anybody except to the minister himself who exercises it, but the broader assertion of the right of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself to call and qualify whom He will to testify of Him; and of the called disciple to yield to and exercise his gifts and calling, without any of those artificial distinctions between clergy and laity which have crept, in the course of ages, into the arrangements of the visible Christian Church.
It reads like a mere truism to say that this testimony to be effective must be a practical one. It will be in vain that we advocate a principle, unless we can shew that in our practice it fulfils the end for which it is intended. No religious organization could long exist without a personal ministry. It is a Divinely enunciated principle that “faith cometh by hearing.” “How shall (men) believe on Him of whom they have not heard, and how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Rom x. 14-17). Since the great Pentecost of Acts ii., the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been the instrument employed for the gathering and maintenance of the Christian Church. It is so still.
One of the strongest evidences of the Divine origin, and therefore of the truth of Christianity, lies in its adaptation to the spiritual needs of mankind in all ages, and under all degrees and conditions of civilization. The world is marching on. Every successive generation is the inheritor of the wisdom and knowledge possessed by the generations that have preceded it. To thoughtful Christians of every age the question will present itself, whether the prevailing arrangements as regards to the service of the Gospel are such as are adapted to the present condition, and needs. The way of salvation never varies. The “Old, old story” of the love of God to man, manifested in the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ, knows no change, and needs no adorning; but men’s thoughts about it from time to time ebb and flow. In order that God’s message to man may reach him and be effectual, it must find him just where he is. The preacher, charged with the precious message from God, must seek his hearers at their own standpoint, and place himself in a position to understand their difficulties in order to be able to shew them how thoroughly God’s method meets their case.
In an age like the present, when everything is being called into question, from the highest to the lowest, and when, in place of that true conviction of a former day, that the highest attainment of human wisdom was to submit itself to the revelation of Himself made by the Infinite God, many of our leading thinkers have landed themselves in the dismal dogma that it is impossible for man to know anything about God, there is surely a crying need for a clear outspoken testimony by living witnesses who have themselves been plucked “out of the horrible pit and the miry clay,” and in whose hearts is found the “new song,” to the power of Christ to put away sin, to dispel darkness, to confer new life and to bestow “the peace of God that passeth all understanding.”
It may be laid down I think as a truth, that the ministry which is to accomplish this end must be, first of all, one that is full of the Holy Ghost and of faith; one that is instructed unto the Kingdom of God; that bringeth forth out of the treasury things new and old; that knows how to bring forth fruit in its proper season; that can offer milk to babes, and strong meat to those who are of full age; and avoid the error which the Saviour rebuked when He said, “Neither cast ye your pearls before swine.”
It can hardly be otherwise than a pertinent inquiry for us, as members of the Society of Friends at the present day, whether the ministry now exercised amongst us fulfils such conditions as these.
I am glad to find that the Yearly Meeting on Ministry and Oversight gave some attention to it at its recent gathering, resulting, no doubt, in the valuable paragraphs contained in the annual epistle.
As one who was not privileged to be present there, but who, now almost in the sunset period of life, and debarred from much personal service, feels an undiminished interest in this important subject, I propose, if the editor of THE FRIEND permits me the use of his columns for that purpose, to pursue it a little further in some future letters.
Joseph John Dymond.
Ilkley, June, 1892
Part 2 of this series is here.