Thoughts on Gospel Ministry
Joseph John Dymond has done good service in giving a series of letters on the ministry of the Gospel as exercised in the Society of Friends, and now that the thirteenth and last letter is published, we may be allowed to express the assurance that they will have stimulated thought in many minds on important matters that undoubtedly claim attention. It would be too much to expect that all that has been said will be everywhere approved. To some, perhaps, one of the most instructive and interesting portions has been the simple and touching narrative of his own call to the ministry. Very many will welcome such a faithful and heartfelt expression of a minister’s own experience; and while it would be very unwise to expect our own experience or that of other men to run on exactly similar lines, it is often by the interchange of experience that we arrive at a clear perception of the ways of the Spirit of the Lord. It would doubtless be helpful to hundreds of Gospel ministers of other denominations thus to compare notes respecting the guidance of the Holy Spirit, as well as a great encouragement to many in younger life who are realising Divine calls.
Some conviction of our own failure must have come home to many of us as we read that one of the chief requisites for fruitful Gospel ministry is clearness of thought. In listening to ministry we may often have been painfully conscious that the speaker himself did not thoroughly grasp the truth he was seeking to impart to others, and that the result was a want of clear expression. Sometimes the latter part of a sermon seems to undo the good which the opening remarks effected. It is well that the conviction should come right home to ourselves that we may have left our hearers in a fog. If we have a message it certainly implies that we have something definite to say. J. J. Dymond has said but little as to what a man is to preach. This reticence may have been very wise, yet he has plainly told us that “The simple preaching of the Cross of Christ, even from homely lips, continues to bring food to the hungry soul, healing to the wounded, liberty to the captive, joy to the mourner, and rest to the weary and heavy laden.”
But though the theological view of the subject has to a large extent remained undiscussed, we have had very suggestive thoughts on the practical side of preaching. Two or three of these it may be well more fully to consider, such as, that government is essential to liberty, that an impossible mutuality collapses, and that worship is a real act, and not merely passive. A considerable portion of the argument in the first three letters brings us to the summing up that “wholesome government is essential to real liberty.” A very limited amount of consideration will convince us that this conclusion is impregnable. The causes that make it necessary to reassert this primary truth are, however, serious, and we know very well by the experience of many meetings in our own Society, especially those occurring at the times of our Quarterly and Yearly Meetings, that the superabundant exercise of liberty to preach often leaves little space for the exercise of other important elements in healthy congregational worship. It is thus quite possible for the liberty of a whole congregation to be sacrificed at the shrine of supposed individual duty. J. J. Dymond shows that in the honest endeavour to avoid one error we may have been falling headlong into an opposite extreme. “Under the plea of avoiding the creation of a clerical caste, the democratic proclivities of the present age are thus manifesting themselves in our Church affairs.” We trust that this urgent plea for the maintenance of wholesome government will be heard. The Society of Friends, that has been the pioneer in many other great movements, is face to face with problems of Church government that have scarcely begun to stir the leaves in the topmost branches of some other Churches. The liberty for every member to take part in the ministry of the Gospel in meetings for worship is an advance step towards “the Church of the future,” but it involves the necessity for a corresponding and effectual defence of the liberty of a congregation from unhallowed or mistaken zeal.
This leads to a second thought brought forward in these letters – that an impossible mutuality collapses, although it is quite right to aim at mutuality. The graphic picture given of what is described as an “experiment” is so well told that it covers more ground that a didactic argument, and reaches to a problem that must be faced if our Church is to make much progress. The experiment referred to appears to have consisted of a meeting for Biblical instruction, and not a regular meeting for worship. One of the noblest thoughts of our day is this same doctrine of mutuality and co-operation rightly understood. But one of the foundation principles of the co-operative system is not that all members have the same office, but that each member has his own special function to fulfil for the welfare and edification of the whole body. We must again learn to maintain the balance of truth. One extreme begets another, and in the honest and right endeavour to escape from the “One Man System,” we may, by carrying one line of truth too far, land ourselves in an “impossible mutuality.” As J. J. Dymond concludes, “We wrong our labourers and we rob ourselves as a Church, if we lay them under unscriptural restrictions which mar their influence, crush out their zeal, and close their lines of service.”
A third point emphasised is that worship is not merely passive. This difficulty is no peculiarity of Quakerism, although among us it may assume a peculiarly mystic quietism. There is a tendency to lassitude and slothfulness of spirit in mankind everywhere, and if we can get a theological plea for doing nothing, we are apt to clothe our indolence with a self-pleasing excuse. It is quite true that God can work without me – it is true that I am to wait till I am moved of the Spirit, – it is true that others can do the work better than I can, but these truths are not to make my religious life effeminate or to make my worship merely passive. I receive that I may give. I learn that I may teach. I am blessed that I may praise and glorify God. I am saved to serve, or as J. J. Dymond puts it, “We serve God in serving men in His name.”