Neither with you only do I make this covenant and this oath; But with him that standeth here with us this day
before the Lord our God, and also with him that is not here with us this day
—Deut. 29.14-15.

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OCCASIONAL HEARING.

Excerpted from:

THE

Reformed Presbyterian and Covenanter.

VOL. I.

APRIL, 1863.

NO. 4.

“Now we beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned, and avoid them.”—Rom. 16.17.

DIFFERENT opinions are held by some members and officers of the church on what is usually termed “occasional hearing.”  Some appear to think that there is no law in the church on the subject, and that there should be none—that all persons should be allowed to do in this matter what is right in their own eyes.  Others admit that there is a law forbidding the practice, but assert that such a law should never have been passed, and that it has now become antiquated and is worthy of no respect whatever.  They boldly maintain that there is nothing in the word of God opposed to this practice, and therefore any law enacted by the church condemning it is, ipso facto, null and void.  If any persons holding these views should condescend to begin to read this paper, we advise them to stop just here; for they are not likely to be benefited by any thing the writer can say on this subject.

Others regard this law of the church as among the matters of Christian prudence on which the church has authority to legislate, and upon this ground they respect and obey the law themselves, and inflict censure upon those who transgress.  And among those who approve of the law as scriptural and useful, there is some diversity of views as to the ground upon which the censure should be administered.  Some put the evil of attending upon the ministry of other churches entirely upon the neglect of ordinances in the church to which the hearers belong; consequently, it is not wrong to attend upon the ministry of other churches, if ordinances have not been neglected at home.  Others maintain that the sin of the practice in question consists wholly in hearing the teachers of fundamental errors and damnable heresies.  They are quite ready to censure those who attend upon the ministry of Socinians, Papists, and Mormons, et id omne genus, but plead that the law is not applicable to those who attend occasionally upon the ministry of those who teach evangelical doctrine.  We only wait here to remark, that as there is so great a diversity of views even among evangelical professors, as to the point where evangelical doctrine ends and fundamental error begins—each shade of error softening into shade, that it would be difficult, nay impossible, to apply the law to many cases that may {106} arise.  A law resting upon grounds so uncertain and conflicting would certainly be of little avail in maintaining the good order of the church.

Amidst this diversity of views on this subject it may be useful to inquire, what does the word of God teach?  What saith the Scripture?  “To the law and to the testimony, if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.” [Isa. 8.20.]  For if the word of God does not condemn the practice, church courts have no authority to enact a prohibitory law on the subject.  Such a law would be an infringement upon the Christian liberty of the people, and having no authority in the law of God, could never reach the conscience of an intelligent and godly man, and consequently could not be either conscientiously obeyed or enforced.

Is, therefore, attending upon the ministry of another church a sin? and, if so, in what does the sin consist?  Does it consist simply in the neglect of ordinances in our own church? or, does it depend upon the size and magnitude of the errors held by the church upon whose ministry attendance is given?  We admit these considerations tend to aggravate the sin, but we affirm that they do not constitute it, nor are they the primary ground upon which censure should be administered.

The Apostle Paul, in the text standing at the head of this article, [Rom. 16.17,] clearly defines the nature of this sin, and shows the primary ground upon which it should be condemned, apart from all the circumstances and aggravations that may attend particular cases.  The apostle here gives two reasons why Christians should avoid the ministrations of other churches.  First, they have made divisions in the church; secondly, they are chargeable with offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned.  Or, they teach principles and tolerate practices opposed to the recognized and established doctrine and order of the church.  All persons and denominations who have either made divisions in the church, or who are guilty of offenses condemned by the discipline of the church, must be marked and avoided.

Christians are commanded by the apostle, in the plainest and strongest terms, not to hear those who have made a division in the church.  “Mark them and avoid them.”  The making of a division in the church is so great a sin, that those guilty of it are to be carefully observed and shunned.  And this division does not necessarily imply that those who have made it are opposed to the acknowledged principles of the church, or hold errors, or are chargeable with any offense contrary to her discipline.  It is the simple fact of making a division that is here spoken of.  Διχοστασιας signifies simply having a separate standing, occupying a different place; hence a faction or division.  Now suppose that some of the ministers and members of our church should secede from her communion, renounce the authority of the Synod, and set up a separate ecclesiastical organization, still holding the same testimony and maintaining entirely the same system of truth, and order; {107} they are not chargeable with any departure from the principles which they heretofore professed, and they attend upon all personal and private duties of religion.  They have only made a division.  This is not merely an imaginary case.  Such divisions have been made in the church.  What is the duty of Christians in reference to those who have made such a division?  The Spirit of God, speaking in this text, contemplates this case, and directs us how to deal with all factions and divisions that may arise.  Mark them and avoid them.  Christians should keep themselves at a distance from those who separate themselves from the church.  The sin of making divisions in the church of God is so great, that it unfits and disqualifies those who are guilty of it for the exercise of all official duties and the enjoyment of all ecclesiastical privileges; and in order to maintain this truth and testify against their sin, Christians are under special obligations to mark and avoid them.  Thus far the duty is plain.

But let us proceed a little further.  Those who make divisions in the church, usually do so because they are opposed to some doctrine which the church has received and her members have learned; or, they are guilty of some offense which the discipline of the church condemns.  Dissatisfaction with the doctrine and order of the church is generally the cause of divisions in the church.  Some error has been embraced, or some sin has been committed, contrary to doctrine, which the faithful and orderly members of the church have learned.  Those who make divisions are not only guilty of violating the unity of the church, and thus committing a great sin, but they are also chargeable with departing from the faith once delivered to the saints.  In addition to the sin of making divisions in the church, they are guilty of backsliding from their profession and departing from the good way in which their fathers walked.  They have violated their solemn vows by departing from the doctrine and order of the church which they had learned, and which they had solemnly sworn to maintain.  In addition to the sin of dividing the body of Jesus Christ, they are guilty of backsliding from a scriptural profession and breach of solemn covenant with God and their brethren.  Now look into the history of the Church of Scotland for more than two hundred years, and it will be found that this is precisely true of all the branches of that church that have seceded from the ground which she occupied in her purest and brightest days of the Second Reformation.  Even the free Church of Scotland, and the Secession of 1732, much as we honor them for their great and self-denying sacrifices and faithfulness in leaving the corrupt Establishment, and in testifying against its manifold evils, are not exceptions to this remark.  Because, when they left the Established Church, they did not unite with the Reformed Presbyterian Church, from which the Establishment had separated, but made more and unnecessary divisions in the household of faith; and because they did not adopt all the attainments of former and better times.  Upon all the branches of that church which have departed {108} from the principles of the covenanted uniformity, which was ratified by the most solemn oaths, and sealed with the blood of the martyrs, rest the sins of dividing the church, backsliding from the truth as it is in Jesus, and breach of covenant.  All these sects having caused divisions and being chargeable with offenses contrary to the doctrine which the church had learned, the command of the apostle to Christians is, mark them and avoid them. {136}

THE different branches of the Presbyterian Church in this country are descended from similar bodies in Scotland, and they sustain the same character, profess substantially the same principles, and approve of the organic deeds of the parent churches.  The same divisions that exist in Scotland are here maintained and perpetuated.  The children approving of their parents’ deeds, and walking in their footsteps, are justly charged with their sins.  As is the mother so is the daughter.  These denominations are chargeable with causing divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which our reforming and martyred fathers had learned and solemnly swore to maintain.  Upon them also rests the sin of dividing the body of Christ, backsliding from the principles and attainments of their honored ancestors, and breaking their covenant with God and his people.

The Reformed Presbyterian Church alone stands acquitted of the charge of causing divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which the most enlightened and godly men in past ages have learned.  She has, indeed, her faults, and the imperfections and short-comings of her officers and members greatly impair the beauty and the symmetry of her profession; but making divisions in the church of God, and departing from the covenanted uniformity which constituted the strength and glory of reforming and better times, are not among her sins.  Many of her children have, from {137} time to time, turned aside with the flocks of the companions, [Cant. 1.7,] but she has constantly gone forth by the footsteps of the flock, and fed her kids beside the shepherds’ tents.  Causing divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which the people of God have learned, she has always regarded as a sin of deep and dreadful criminality; and her consistent and faithful members feel themselves constrained to mark and avoid those who are guilty of them.  “They cheerfully appreciate the talents and piety of their acquaintances, and as opportunity may offer, commune with them as friends and as Christians, but they cannot extend to any one the right hand of fellowship in the visible church, upon any other principles than those contained in their Declaration and Testimony; nor can they consistently join, either statedly or occasionally, in the communion of any other church, by waiting upon its ministry, either in word or sacraments, while they continue opposed to these declared sentiments.”[1]

And there is nothing [which] tends to promote and perpetuate divisions in the church more than the practice of attending upon the ministry of those who have caused divisions.  When a minister, or a number of ministers, become disaffected with the principles and duties of their profession, and combine and form a faction and leave the church, they expect that a goodly number of the brethren from whom they separate themselves, will attend, at least occasionally, upon their ministrations, and that from these occasional hearers, they will draw away as many as will form and maintain the new sect.  Occasional hearers are the materials out of which it is expected to erect and maintain the new church.  And the leaders of the party finding that many of those from whom they have separated themselves follow them, and attend occasionally upon their ministry, feel encouraged and strengthened in their divisive course; and the sin of causing divisions, by which their consciences may have been disturbed, is in a good measure, if not entirely, removed from their minds.  They are inclined to thank God and take courage.

But if all the members of the church would obey the command of the apostle in this text, and mark and avoid those who cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which they have learned, there would be at once an end of division.  Disappointed men, knowing that if they followed a divisive course, or committed an offense contrary to the doctrine and order of the church, they would be marked and avoided by their brethren, would become quiet and peaceable members of the church.  Thus obedience to this divine command would have prevented many divisions in the church, and preserved her unity and peace.

Attending upon the ministry of those who have caused divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which we have learned, tends also to encourage and perpetuate divisions that have been made.  For if we can consistently attend upon the ministry of those who have made divisions, and maintain errors and sins which our Testimony condemns, then it follows that dividing the church of {138} Christ is quite a minor offense, and those principles of our Testimony which are opposed by those with whom we occasionally worship are of inferior importance.  Whatever we may think about the matter, this is the interpretation put upon our conduct by those with whom we worship, when we attend occasionally upon their public ministrations.  They regard the distinctive principles of our church as of little value, and they look upon the difference between us and them as small, and they are pleased that we give so much evidence of agreement with them in their opinion.  Our written testimony against their errors and sins is little regarded, when they have our presence as a practical testimony in their favor.  They are pleased with those who attend occasionally upon their ministrations.  They regard them as charitable and liberal in their views, because they give so much evidence that they think division in the church a small matter, and because they seem to attach so little importance to the distinctive principles of their profession; and the hope is entertained that, after some time, the ground of difference between the two churches will appear less and less, until the occasional hearer will cease to contend for it and become a permanent member with them.

And there is a corresponding influence [which] operates upon the minds of those who attend upon the public ministrations of those whom we have testified against.  Association produces assimilation.  They will seldom, if ever, hear their own peculiar principles spoken against, and they will see much that is comely and excellent in their religious services.  They will see much to approve and little to condemn.  And hearing the great doctrines of grace preached, and witnessing the Christian conversation and piety of the people attending upon these ordinances, and being edified and comforted themselves, the question, after some time, will arise, why not attend regularly upon these ministrations?  If it is right to attend occasionally, why not attend regularly?  If it is proper to attend two Sabbaths in the year, why not fifty-two?  What is the difference in principle?  If it be said, we neglect ordinances in our own church, the question then arises, why have other ordinances besides those that we attend upon occasionally?  Why have another church?  For if the evil of occasional hearing consists merely in the neglect of ordinances, then Christians should attend upon those ordinances that are most convenient, irrespective of the ecclesiastical position and principles of those who administer them.  Those ordinances should be attended upon which can be enjoyed most regularly and are less liable to be neglected.

To say that occasional hearing is censurable only when ordinances in our church are neglected, is to ignore the sin of division in the church, and also teaching erroneous doctrines.  It puts the practice upon entirely different ground from that on which the apostle condemns it.  It places denominations which have made divisions in the church, and held doctrines contrary to our standards, upon the same ground of different congregations in our church.  For a person who neglects ordinances in the congregation {139} to which he belongs, and attends upon the ordinances of a neighboring congregation, may, in some circumstances, be chargeable with disorder and censured; and the censure, in this case, would be administered simply upon the ground of the neglect of ordinances, and not for hearing another minister preaching.  Now there is a very marked difference between the conduct of this individual and of another person, who neglects the same ordinances and attends occasionally upon ordinances in a neighboring congregation which belongs to another denomination.  To censure both these persons for the same thing, would be to place that denomination in the same relation to our church, that different congregations in our church stand in to one another.  The act of the one is disorderly, but that of the other is also in direct opposition to the plain and positive command of Jesus Christ, to mark and avoid those who have caused divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which the church has received.  To regard and treat these two acts alike, would be to confound all difference between our church and other denominations, to overlook the sin of dividing the church of which they are chargeable, and all the errors which they maintain.

Thus, occasional hearing and the arguments usually employed to sustain it, or apologize for it, tend to subvert the testimony of the church, to impair respect for her distinctive character and principles, and weaken love and esteem for all scriptural truths.  The great prevailing evil of these times, which is immensely hurtful to the church and ruinous to the souls of men, is indifference to Bible truth.  Hence the common remark that “one creed is as good as another; one church is as good as another.  No matter what church a man belongs to, or what he believes, if his heart is good,” &c.  Attending upon the ministry of divisive and erroneous denominations is one of the effects of this prevalent and fundamental evil, and it tends greatly to strengthen and extend it.  When the church lifts up her testimony in behalf of great scriptural truths, and testifies against the contrary “errors and all who maintain them,” she declares, in the most solemn and authoritative manner, that these errors shall not be preached.  And the great object of the church in preparing such a testimony, as it regards her own members, is to enable them to mark and avoid those who maintain these errors.  When a member of that church attends upon the ministrations of a denomination whose only distinctive principles are some of those errors testified against, he says virtually that these errors may be preached, and he defeats the primary end of that testimony which he professes to hold.  The more pious and consistent members of our church will not do this.

The great prevailing evil of these times, which is immensely hurtful to the church and ruinous to the souls of men, is indifference to Bible truth.

It has been said by some worthy and well-meaning members of the church, that the law forbidding occasional hearing prevents her growth, and exposes her to reproach and opposition by other denominations.  Admitting that there is some truth in this allegation, let us ask, what is the ground upon which it rests?  Is it {140} not chiefly this, that by not attending occasionally upon the ministry of sectarian and erroneous churches, our people give the most pointed and effectual testimony in favor of the high moral position which our church occupies, and the importance of the peculiar principles which she holds.  Our church is one, the only one of her mother, and she regards her principles above all price; those who have separated from her are many, and their errors are legion.  Not attending even occasionally upon their ministrations, our people give a standing and powerful testimony against their divisions and errors.  They are thus continually reminded of the integral character of our church, and of the great importance of our peculiar principles from which they have departed.  Our practice is thus a constant remembrancer of their sins, and a standing practical testimony against their errors.  Of course they don’t like it, and they would be pleased if this point of our testimony were withdrawn.  If we would not mark those who have caused divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrines which we have learned, and not avoid them, they would probably think better of us.  If we would say to them practically that we regard causing division in the church a minor offense, and our principles of little value, they might regard us with more favor, or if they respected our position they might despise our persons.  Even then it is not certain that great numbers would be added to the church.  Those who have tried to enlarge the church in this way have not been successful.  And those additions that have been made by the sacrifice of consistency and faithfulness are no acquisition to the church.

Let it always be remembered, that the whole power of the church to bring others within their pale consists in the full and faithful exhibition of divine truth, and in the godly and consistent conduct of her members.  To shave off any of her locks is to weaken her strength.

RENWICK.


Footnotes:

1. This quotation is taken from the concluding section of part 1 in Reformation Principles Exhibited, specifically the third-to-last paragraph.  Although not engrossed in the Doctrinal Testimony when published in 1806, it is the published official position of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, and the policy or discipline which was also common to other Christians at that time, who still conceived a hope of bringing the fractured Church of Jesus Christ into a proper organized unity, in conformity with Scripture direction: 1 Cor. 1.10.  The fact that modern evangelical Christians have abandoned such discipline is definitive proof that modern evangelicalism has both given up belief in Christ’s power to preserve his Church as one, and also embraced Sectarianism, or what is sometimes called Denominationalism.  Holy Scripture neither knows nor teaches an institution for the accommodation of Christians so that they may be of a semi-organized unity, joined together in contrary minds, and various judgments.  Its words are emphatically different.—JTKer.