Christian Fellowship

By John Angell James, 1822


First. In those cases where the churches are of a DIFFERENT DENOMINATION.

1. We should respect their religious opinions and practices.

They act conscientiously; and whatever is done at the dictate of conscience, is too sacred to be made the matter of ridicule. The way to bring the scorn of ungodly men upon all religion, is for religious people, differing upon minor points, to jest about each other's practices.

2. Let us avoid religious bigotry and prejudice.

By bigotry, I mean such an arrogant attachment to our opinions and denomination, as alienates our affections from Christians of another name, and leads us to conclude there is little excellence or piety, except in our own communion. Some Christians are so shortsighted by prejudice, that they cannot discern the most splendid exhibitions of moral excellence, if they are at the least removed from their own denomination. The consideration, that a man is not of their party, is sufficient, in their evil eye—to dim the luster of an example which angels admire, and to eclipse that living luminary, which, to the eye of Heaven, shines with most radiant glory. Their moral vision has so long and so intently pored over the minute distinctions of our party, as to have acquired a contraction of power, which prevents them from comprehending and admiring, as they would otherwise do, the grander features of Christianity in general.

I know not a proof of true piety more decisive, and more pleasing, than that quick perception and fervent admiration of the beauties of holiness, which lead a man to recognize and love them, wherever they are seen, whether in his own denomination or in others. "The evil to be deplored in the present state of the church, is the unnatural distance at which Christians stand from each other, the spirit of sects, the disposition to found their union on the wood, hay and stubble of human inventions, or disputable tenets—instead of the eternal Rock, the faith once delivered to the saints. Surely, surely, we shall find a sufficient bond of union, a sufficient scope for all our sympathies, in the doctrine of the cross." –Robert Hall.

3. We should abstain from all intrusive controversy, or underhand proselytism.

I will not deny that there are occasions when our distinctive opinions may be brought forward with propriety and advocated with zeal; when 'silence' would be lukewarmness, and not candor. But to be ever intruding our distinctive opinions upon the attention of others, and to be always seeking after opportunities of controversy, is as disgusting as it is pernicious! For while it offends others, it is sure to do harm to our own spirit.

Regarding the irreligious part of our population as an immense moral desert, surely there is scope enough for our zeal, to reclaim this immense waste, and convert it into the garden of the Lord, without employing our energies in altering the position of those plants and trees, which are already flourishing in the sacred enclosure. It is a far more honorable and useful kind of zeal, to convert sinners into Christians; than real Christians of one name, into real Christians of another name.

Secondly. I shall now speak of the conduct of Christians to the members of other churches—of their OWN denomination.

It does not infrequently happen, that where two or more churches of the same denomination exist in a town, a most unhappy, unscriptural, disgraceful temper is manifested towards each other. All the feelings of envy, jealousy, and ill will, are cherished and displayed with as much, or more bitterness than two rival tradesmen would exhibit in the most determined opposition of interests. This is peculiarly the case where two churches have been formed, by a schism, out of one. Oftentimes the feud has been perpetuated through one generation, and has been bequeathed to the generation following. Can it be that these are churches of saints? Can it be that these are all one in Christ? Can it be that these are churches, whose rule is the word of Christ, whose conduct is the image of Christ, whose end is the glory of Christ!!

Shame, public, deep, indelible shame on such churches! Is it thus that churches quarrel—to find sport for their enemies? By all the regard which is due to the authority of the Lord Jesus, by all the constraining influence of his love, let such churches be impelled to terminate their hateful strifes, which are not more dishonorable to the cause of religion in general, than they are injurious to the interests of piety within their own immediate sphere of action. With what bitter taunts, with what sarcastic triumph do profane and infidel spectators point to such scenes, and ironically exclaim, "See how these Christians love one another!"

Let us guard against this evil where it does not exist, and endeavor to suppress it where it does. Let us not look with envy and jealousy on the growing prosperity of other societies. Let us not consider their success as in any degree encroaching upon ours. If we succeed more in our own church, let us be thankful—but not boastful! If others take precedence, let us be stirred up to affectionate, holy emulation—but not to envy and jealousy!

A worthy minister, who used to preach a week-day lecture in the city of London, heard a friend expressing his regret that it was so ill attended. "Oh, that," replied the minister, "is of little consequence, as the gospel is preached by several others in the same neighborhood; and in such a situation, for anyone to be very desirous that people should come and hear the gospel from him, instead of others, seems as unreasonable, as it would be for one of the shopmen in a large shop, to wish all the customers to come to his particular part of the counter. If the customers come at all, and the goods are purchased, in so far as he feels an interest in the prosperity of the shop, he will rejoice."

Beautiful and rare example of true humility, pure zeal and genuine love to Christ! Look at this, you ministers and churches, who quarrel with your neighbor Christians, and scarcely speak well of them, because they prosper! Shall we feel mortified when immortal souls are saved, because we are not the instruments of their conversion? Shall we say, if we cannot gather them into our church, let them not be gathered? If two rival physicians, who had each as much as he could do, when the plague was raging in a town, looked with envy and grudging on each other's success, what would we say of their spirit? But such a temper in these circumstances is far less criminal, than the envious disposition of some ministers and their flocks.

There should be a spirit of mutual affection between the members of different churches. They should love as brethren; and that this might not be disturbed, they should avoid, when they meet in their respective social circles, all detracting and uncharitable reference to the others. Nothing is more common than for the Christians of one church to make the circumstances and faults of those of another church, the leading topics of conversation. Thus the coals of strife are kindled between these Christian churches, and every one present lends his breath to fan the flame. It is melancholy indeed, when our houses are thus converted into temples for the god of this world, the divider of the brethren; and our family altar is lent for an offering of scandal at his shrine.

Ministers, and leading people in the church, should always set their faces against this mischievous gossip. All comparisons between the talents of the ministers, and the respectability of their churches, should be carefully abstained from! This is sure to do harm. It is right for every church member to be attached to his own pastor—and he may very innocently think that his minister is the best preacher in the town—but it is insulting and mischievous to express his opinion to those who prefer another pastor or church.

Also, it is common for the pulpit to be converted into a source of the most disgusting adulation, and for a 'ministerial flatterer' to flatter the pride of his flock—by telling them how superior they are to all others in affluence, liberality, and influence. Such fawning, to say nothing of its baseness, is exceedingly injurious. What is intended as a compliment to one church is felt as an insult by all others in its vicinity. All boasting should be most conscientiously refrained from, both on the part of ministers and people. If they are in a state of spiritual prosperity, let them be thankful—but not vain-glorious or proud of themselves. "Love does not envy—it does not boast, it is not proud." 1 Cor. 13:4. The apostle delivered a very keen rebuke on those who are the trumpeters of their own fame, when he said, "In this self-confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool. Since many are boasting in the way the world does, I too will boast. You gladly put up with fools since you are so wise!" 2 Cor. 11:17-19

Church members should never resent by coldness, and aloofness of behavior, the conduct of those who leave THEIR church, to join another church in the same town. They have a right to exercise their own judgment as well as we do. And in their view, at least, have as good reason for preferring the pastor to whom they go, as we have for continuing with the one they leave. They may separate too hastily, and not on sufficient grounds—but that is their concern, not ours. I have known cases in which both the minister and his flock have refused even the civilities of ordinary communion to those who have left their church to associate with another. This is a most pitiful and unchristian disposition.

There are duties to be performed by the church in its collective capacity towards other churches of the same denomination.

1. We should own them as churches of Christ, cherish the most friendly and fraternal feelings towards them, and hold Christian communion with them in all the duties of our common faith and practice.

Such appears to have been the feelings of the primary churches. "The churches of Christ greet you." Rom. 16:16. "Your sister church here in Rome sends you greetings, and so does my son Mark." 1 Pet. 5:13. "You are taught by God to love one another, and you do it towards all the brethren in Macedonia." 1 Thes. 4:9, 10.

2. We should receive their members when recommended to us, and freely grant honorable recommendations of our members to them.

"I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me." Romans 16:1-2. "As for our brothers, they are representatives of the churches and an honor to Christ. Therefore show these men the proof of your love and the reason for our pride in you, so that the churches can see it." 2 Cor. 8:23-24

3. We should co-operate with neighboring churches for promoting the spread of the gospel, either by local or general institutions.

Many objects of vast importance to the spread of the gospel in the world can be accomplished by the union of churches, which cannot be effected without it. Union is power. Places of worship may be opened, the faithful ministry of the word introduced, and churches planted in dark, benighted villages; while all the grand and noble institutions which are organized to save a perishing world, may by this means receive additional support. United fires brighten each other's blaze, and increase each other's intensity; and thus the association of churches enkindles each other's zeal, and provokes one another to love and good works. Nor is zeal the only Christian virtue promoted by such unions; brotherly love is cherished and excited. The presence of messengers from other churches at the annual meetings of our societies, produces a friendly feeling and brotherly interest, not unlike that which a family experiences, when gathered together at their reunion. One great end of assembling the males of the Jewish nation three times a year before the ark, was to keep up a brotherly feeling between the different and distant parts of the nation. Nothing is so likely to cherish the fire of love, as the fuel supplied by works of zeal.

4. We should be willing to give and receive ADVICE in cases of difficulty and importance.

Of course, the independence of the churches, and the right of private judgment, should be vigilantly watched, and sacredly preserved. We have no dominion over each other's conduct, any more than over each other's faith. The idea of 'control' is as repugnant to Scripture, as it is to reason. And we are to resist unto blood, striving against the usurpation of foreign compulsory interference. But advice does not imply control. The dread which has been felt of the simple act of one church's asking the advice of a neighboring minister, or an association of ministers, in cases of extreme difficulty—shows a fear of domination, which is perfectly childish. How consistent with all the dictates of reason, and all the proceedings of civil life, is it, for two parties in a state of perplexity, to ask the opinion of a third; or for one individual in difficulty, to solicit the advice of another. When a minister and his flock are in some critical situation, let them jointly agree to lay their affairs before some two or three neighboring ministers and laymen of sound judgment, for counsel and direction; and how often, by this simple, rational, scriptural process, would a society be brought back from the brink of ruin—to peace and safety!

But what if they should not take the advice thus given by the third party? They must then be left to themselves, and would be but where they were before. The disposition which scorns to ask, and refuses to take advice, savors far more of the pride of self-sufficiency, than the love of peace; and of the temper which courts interminable anarchy rather than be indebted for the restoration of order, to the opinions and persuasions of another. Men who stand out side of the 'mist of passion', can see more than those who are enveloped in the fog.

5. We should take a deep interest in the welfare of other churches, and in a suitable and proper manner express our sympathy, and afford to them our assistance.

We should at our church meetings remember in prayer, the cases of such as are in circumstances of affliction; and in the event of the death of a pastor, how consoling would it be to a bereaved church, to receive letters of condolence from neighboring churches! There is one way, in which the most effectual help may be rendered by one church to another—I mean, financial assistance granted from such as are wealthy—to those who are poor. We are informed, Acts 11:29, 30, that the disciples at Antioch sent financial gifts, according to their abilities, to the poor saints in Judea. "Now about the money being collected for the Christians in Jerusalem: You should follow the same procedures I gave to the churches in Galatia." 1 Cor. 16:1.

I am aware, that this is sometimes done out of a fund, raised by the joint contributions of the churches in a county or district association—but how great would be the effect produced, if a church, in its individual capacity, were from year to year to send a donation to some poor community in its neighborhood! What a lovely display of Christian feeling would this be! How would it endear the churches to each other! It would assist those to gain an efficient and settled minister, who, probably—but for such help, would only enjoy the precarious labors of occasional and incompetent preachers. The comfort of many faithful and laborious ministers would be thus promoted, and the kingdom of Jesus Christ enlarged.

The rich churches in our large cities, and in the country, who, without effort, can raise for your own pastors ample salaries—I appeal to your liberality, on behalf of those many churches scattered up and down the land, which are withering for the lack of a little of that wealth, which you could spare, without lessening the comfort, either of your minister, or your families. I would not rob the funds of Missionary, or Bible Societies, to replenish the little store of gospel ministers at home—but I will say, that no foreign objects should be allowed to interfere with the claims of those deserving and holy men, who are laboring for souls amid all the ills of poverty, and all the cares and woes which such ills must necessarily entail.

Where is the favored individual, into whose lap the 'bounty of Heaven' has poured the abundance of riches, and into whose heart divine grace has introduced the mercy which is full of good fruits? Here let him find an object worthy of his wealth and of his zeal. Let him become the nursing father of our poor churches. If he spends two thousand pounds a year in this way, he may give forty pounds a year to fifty ministers. What a means of usefulness! How many infant churches would smile upon him from their cradle; and, as they turned upon him their eyes glistening with gratitude, would exclaim, "My Father, my father!" In how many church-books would his name be enrolled, amid the benedictions and prayers of the saints!