To whom shall I speak, and give warning, that they may hear? behold, their ear is uncircumcised, and they cannot hearken.—Jer. 6.10

Occasional Hearing, from the Reformed Presbyterian magazine.


Excerpted from:





No. IX. Editor's Introduction.

The following article on "Occasional Hearing" is a short summary of the rule and practice historically observed by conservative Presbyterians and Lutherans as a consequence of biblical principles of Church Fellowship. At present this is still observed by conservative Lutheran churches such as the Church of the Lutheran Confession, but has been almost entirely abandoned by Presbyterians in favour of Church Fellowship principles that reflect a mixture of worldly looseness and anabaptist subjectivity. Historically, within the Presbyterian context, Covenanters and Seceders asserted the "Rule against Occasional Hearing" and held members of their Churches accountable to ecclesiastical discipline for violations of this scriptural rule. Its respect in the past century however, has diminished to nearly nothing, and will in part account for the extinction of the Seceder churches, and the loss of orthodoxy and historic identity on the part of most churches still claiming a relation to the Covenanters.

Despite the fact that many in these modern Covenanter churches, such as the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, (RPCNA), associate the rule against occasional hearing with what they account the over-strictness of sectarian-principled Covenanters, the reality of the matter is that the RPCNA itself once upheld and defended this very rule. It is also noteworthy that although the practice of Occasional Hearing within the RPCNA formed one of the occasions for division in the RPCNA in the mid-1800's, yet, there can be no warrantable claim that those maintaining the importance of this Rule had strayed from historic Covenanter principles in asserting the Rule itself, or its importance, seeing as the Rule continued to be acknowledged, enforced, and defended within the RPCNA even after the said division. Looseness on the part of the RPCNA as a body, and a failure to enforce the consistent application of this Rule throughout the entire church, constituted a serious concern for faithful Covenanters in those times. But as for those who advocated a greater "liberality" of principle and practice, they could not honestly claim that these faithful Covenanters had departed from either the "spirit or letter" of the law of the house on this matter. The following article itself, was published in a periodical of the RPCNA only one year before the above-mentioned division.

The following article assumes some acquaintance with the Rule itself, and then lays down reasons in its defence. For many modern readers it may be necessary to inquire what the rule itself was. The Rule is sometimes represented as contemplating whether or not it is appropriate for Christians to attend ministerial ordinances (the preaching of the word, administration of sacraments, etc.) in churches outside of their own ecclesiastical communion. This is, however, a very imperfect description of the matter, as it portrays the Rule as being merely concerned with a legalistic regulation about which church a Christian ought to be present at.

When understood properly, there is an assumption behind the Rule, that each existing ecclesiastical communion continues in its existence as a distinct ecclesiastical body because the members and ministers thereof are convinced that all other ecclesiastical bodies either maintain some error, or allow the practice of some sin, which ought not to be tolerated in the Church. For ecclesiastical communions to maintain distinct existences for any other reason, would be purely schismatic, and could never escape the accusation of having set aside the biblical mandate of Christian Unity in the Church, in favour of mere names, preferences, and ceremonies.

To state the Rule accurately therefore, over-simplification must be avoided; yet, the matter is not difficult. "Occasional Hearing" is then, the name we give to the practice of occasionally attending the offical ministerial ordinances of those Churches from whose ecclesiastical communion we regard it as our Christian duty to remain separate, as a part of our testimony against their defections and sins. If we, as individuals, or churches, cannot unite officially in one body, with another minister or the ecclesiastical communion with which he is associated, then the Rule against Occasional Hearing forbids us to unite with him occasionally. The logical consequence is inevitable. Every scripture that may be alleged to justify our separation in the premise, will likewise condemn any "occasional" deviations from the conclusion.

These things set forth, it is hoped that the reader will understand that there is no concern here about whether or not people should be told "you must attend my church and only my church." All of the concern is with respect to two particulars: (1) Consistently maintaining a faithful testimony against the sins and errors of Churches and ministers who are accounted to be walking in a course of unfaithfulness to the Rules and Doctrines of Holy Scripture; and (2) Exercising faithful ministerial discipline in the Church, to preserve Christ's sheep from any course which will lead them away from the Voice of the Shepherd. As you read the reasons presented below, you will find that all of the reasons here, (as is true of other defences of this Rule,) fit into either one of these two categories of Biblical duty.

1. Public worship is the great instituted means for promoting the instruction of a sinful world. By this is meant not only acts of public devotion, such as prayer and praise; but, also the preaching of the gospel: both of these are designed to promote the instruction and sanctification of the people of God. The former is speaking unto God; the latter a speaking of God and his mercies. Supplication and thanksgiving are the means of receiving Divine blessings, and of expressing our gratitude to God for those we enjoy. Yet every kind of devotional service cannot be acceptable to God; nor answer the end designed by worship. We should ask only for such things as are agreeable to the will of God, in the name of Christ, and for his sake alone.

The preaching of the gospel is "the power of God unto salvation unto every one that believeth." [Rom. 1.16.] But, every kind of preaching, or every system of doctrine is not this "power of God." There are some who, while they profess to preach the gospel, are "the enemies of the cross of Christ;" [Phil. 3.18.] and there are others, who "turn the grace of God into lasciviousnes, denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ." [Jude v. 4.] It is not to be expected, that the Head of the Church will bless a system of worship, whether doctrinal or devotional, which is in truth not of his own appointment. Indeed we may employ more decided terms and say, he will not bless it. Nay, he forbids it most solemnly. "In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men." Matt. 15.9. {258}

2. It is the duty of every one favoured with the opportunity, to attend the public worship of God. "Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is." Heb. 10.25. "The Lord loveth the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob." Psalm 87.2. But it is not the duty of the Christian to attend every kind of public worship so called, that may be within his reach. If the devotional part is not agreeable to the will of God in substance or in manner; if the doctrines taught are not the truths of God, then it follows that no one is bound to attend such worship; because it is not God's ordinance, dispensed according to his appointment; nor can it promote the edification of the worshipper. The only rule by which worship is to be directed is the sacred scriptures: correspondence to this entitles it to our approval and observance.

It is presumed that every one making a profession of religion, makes, according to his own judgment, the best possible choice. The fact that a choice is made, is proof that it is considered the best. A man would certainly forfeit all claim to reason, who, in making choice of a religious profession, espoused one, knowing at the same time that another which he rejected was more agreeable to the revealed will of God.

Having made these preliminary statements we proceed to lay before our readers some reasons showing that it is inconsistent and improper for members of the church to indulge in the practice of Occasional Hearing.

1. By occasional hearing we are in danger of imbibing error. The diversity of sentiments taught in the public ministrations of religion, some of which are directly opposed to others: and the different modes of worship practised, put it beyond doubt, that error is frequently taught; and that the worship of God is often conducted in a manner not agreeable to his will.—Occasional hearing exposes to the danger of being corrupted by false doctrines; and of worshipping God in a manner not appointed in his word. "Can a man take fire into his bosom and not be burnt?" [Prov. 6.27.] Can a man be in the way of hearing erroneous sentiments urged with all the advantages peculiar to pulpit ministrations, without danger of being corrupted? False principles plausibly stated, and perhaps elegantly illustrated, may imperceptibly find acceptance with the hearer without his ever being aware of his danger. "We can distinguish," say some, "between the good and the evil; {259} and while we are instructed by the former we can reject the latter!" But, there is more of boasting, than of wisdom in such a sentiment; it savours more of inexperienced rashness, than of christian knowledge. It is not the corrected and tutored judgment of one who is aware that the heart of man is deceitful and desperately wicked. By frequently hearing, and joining in that which is false, a man becomes familiar with it; and operating on the deceitfulness of his heart, it ceases to be so dangerous or so odious in its appearance as at first. Thus men first see, next become so familiar with error, that they embrace it. It is not every hearer of the gospel that is capable of detecting error, in the public ministrations of religion, disguised as it may be,—as it often is by the glare of a winning eloquence. For, then, like poison concealed in a honey-comb, it may be swallowed with pleasure.—The greater part of christians who would be able, by deliberating in their closets, comparing leisurely scripture with scripture, to come to the most correct conclusions in relation to doctrines, might be easily imposed upon by plausible statements and false reasoning flowing rapidly from the lips of an ingenious speaker. Thus, men are not unfrequently led astray, gradually and unthinkingly, from the simplicity of gospel truth. And we think it of importance here to notice that similar effects are produced in relation to the devotional part of public worship. We have known persons, who according to their own statements were even shocked when they heard for the first time a human psalmody [hymns] employed in the praise of God, who after a few repetitions, could join in its use most cordially. If error is so insinuating as thus to upset received principles, and find its way into the understanding and affections of those who have professed strong attachment to truth, the safest, as well as the most dutiful course is to follow the instruction given by the Spirit of God, "Cease my son to hear the instruction that causeth to err." [Prov. 19.27.] Besides the danger of being corrupted by error, mark the unseemly plight into which a conscientious man thrusts himself by attending worship occasionally where a human psalmody is used. His sense of religious propriety forbids him to unite in this part of the service. And instead of entering the courts of God's house with praise, he must be silent; thus, an important part of public worship is neglected. Should not the reason, which prevents a Christian from joining in any part of the worship, prevent him from being there? {260}

In proportion as men of generally correct views have indulged in the practice of occasional hearing they come by and by, to think falsehood less hideous, and truth less lovely, and then is adopted the modern sentiment, that it is not of much importance what a man believes, if he is only sincere. A sentiment which is exceedingly dangerous in a practical point of view. Were it not objectionable on any other ground, this would be sufficient to brand it with disapprobation. A practice that conducts to such results is one that must be wrong.

2. By occasional hearing we would neutralize and vitiate our testimony. It is most contradictory for a man to make a strenuous profession of the truth, holding it up before the world as his testimony; and at the same time strengthen the hands of those who are opposed to the truth, by his practice. In such instances, the judgment formed respecting a man's views of religion will be more readily taken from his practice than his profession.

3. Because by our presence we would countenance and encourage others in error and divisive courses. We do not say, that by mere presence a man gives assent to all that may be done or said in devotional exercises, or in preaching; but, without stretching the argument so far, it cannot be denied that countenance and encouragement are thus given. However erroneous the sentiments of a man may be, or unscriptural the worship which he conducts, he will certainly consider the voluntary presence of others an encouragement for him to persevere. Thus by attending the official ministrations of such as are in error, we encourage them in their erroneous and divisive courses.

If, induced by a vain curiousity to see the theatrical pomp of popish worship, a Protestant should be tempted (as many are) so far to forget his duty as to be present at the mass or other religious services of that false system, would he not in this way encourage the practice of idolatry? Would he not in this way encourage the votaries of idolatry and superstition to continue in their hateful and sinful course of opposition to the worship of God in the way which he has appointed?

If, to gratify an itching ear and an unwarrantable lust of novelty, a man goes to a place of worship where Hopkinsianism or Arminianism may probably be taught,—or where the praise of God is sung—not in the songs of Zion, but in those of Watts or other uninspired writers—does he not, by doing so, {261} countenance false doctrines and unscriptural worship? And does he not thus encourage men of unscriptural principles and practices to hold them fast? If a christian so far forgets the obligation which he owes to the Lord Jesus Christ as to place himself in circumstances where he may hear instruction that disputes and denies the crown rights and royal honors of the Mediator, does he not thus tacitly countenance such doctrines? Is he not chargeable with encouraging others to pluck the diadem from the head of the Saviour, and wrench from Him the death-earned honour of being "Governor among the nations?"

5. It may become the means of ensnaring others. It is not only an encouragement to such as already love error to continue in it, but the practice of attending even occasionally upon an erroneous ministry may become a snare to others. Thus the young and the unthinking may, by the example of those around them, be led to imitate such examples; and finally, in consequence of this, forsake the truth. Were a man in no danger himself, the risk which is incurred of ensnaring others by his example, should be a sufficient motive to abstain from occasional hearing. Every christian is bound by such considerations. The apostle Paul felt them so strongly that he declared he would not eat flesh while the world stood, if it caused a brother to offend.

6. The practice of occasional hearing is opposed to the authority and command of such scriptures as the following: 2 Thess. 3.6:—"Now we command you, brethren, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us." This scripture teaches, in the first place,—that it is our duty sometimes to withdraw from such as may be brethren by the profession of christianity. In the second place,—that the reason of withdrawing is disorderly walking. And this may be either practical or doctrinal.—"that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us."

From these we derive the conclusion that occasional hearing is at variance with the authority of scripture; for this practice is not a withdrawing from such as walk disorderly, but an intimate association with them. The sense given by commentators of this passage is, that the apostle commands the exercise of discipline, even to the extent of excommunication from the church—because of disorderly walking. If, {262} then, immoral conduct or heresy in doctrine,—walking not "after the tradition" of the apostle, be a sufficient reason for excommunicating such,—certainly it is a sufficient reason for not uniting in public worship with such as may hold heretical doctrines. In the context the apostle forbids every kind of association with those that are disorderly. Not only does he command the exercise of discipline, but he commands the members of the church to have no company with them.—"And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed." [2 Thess. 3.14.] If there is a sufficient reason for abstaining from ecclesiastical connexion, and for declaring a testimony in opposition to such as do wrong things and teach wrong things, the same reason should prevent us from encouraging them in their wrong courses. But if we occasionally unite with them in public worship, we give them countenance; and instead of making them "ashamed" of their divisive and schismatic course, we give them countenance, and so far take away the deserved reproach.   2 Timothy 1.13—"Hold fast the form of sound words which thou hast heard of me in faith and love, which is in Christ Jesus."   Phil. 3.16—"Whereunto we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing."   Jude, 3rd verse—"It was needful for me to write unto you and exhort you, that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered to the saints." Is it holding "fast the form of sound words"—is it walking "by the same rule" and minding "the same thing"—is it contending earnestly "for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints"—to strengthen the hands and encourage the hearts of such as are opposed to "the form of sound words" and to the "faith once delivered to the saints"? The duty of the Christian is to obey the authority of Christ, speaking in the Scriptures, "Cease, my son, to hear the instruction that causeth to err."