This post was republished to Kiwi and an Emu. at 3:46:54 PM 5/01/2008
Theophilus begins his defense of experience meetings with the assertion that, even if there were not a single example in the Old or New Testaments, the fact that the meetings bring such benefit to Christians is proof enough that they are God’s will. The benefits he refers to include the following:
1. They are a way of keeping believers fervent in the faith through fellowship. “…and what better means of maintaining liveliness than to gather together to pray together, to sing together and to declare the goodness of God to one and another since the last meeting…?”
2. Such fellowship helps Christians recognize the cunning traps laid by the devil. “Many young saints are like lambs, that run after the dogs instead of after their own mothers; imagining that some sins are no sins, but grace; that the breezes of nature are the breath of heaven; that the spirit of melancholy is truly a broken heart; and pride, envy, and prejudice are a sign of zeal for God…”
3. These meetings prevent lack of love and coldness. When believers do not meet (where there is every opportunity) suspicions and evil thoughts have ample opportunity to arise.
4. Believers can watch over each other’s lives. “As is the custom with girls, when they are dressing and adorning themselves, to look at each other’s clothes in case there should be any untidy or unsuitable thing, or something not in keeping with the other garments, so the Church of God…is to look each member at the life and behaviour of the others…”
5. Christians are able to bear each other’s burdens, to listen, to pray, to comfort and advise. “…it gives great relief to every burdened man, when another comes under the yoke with him and takes on himself some of the burden.”
6. Gathering in a meeting also gives opportunity for people to tell people what great things God has been doing in them and to praise him for it. “Oh! How difficult it is for a man who has received great treasures, and those unexpectedly, either from a loved one or in any other way, not to reveal this to all those who would rejoice with him!”
7. There is strength in numbers against spiritual enemies.
8. These meetings give people an opportunity to see needs amongst themselves (and the wider community) and to do something about it, “…and so, compassion, sympathy, generosity, love, brotherly kindness, and every other grace which is meet to be shown by the rich to the poor, the healthy to the sick, by the one who has all to the one who has nothing, by those who are at ease to the miserable and needy, will be exercised.”
Theophilus then goes on to the following Scriptural “proofs” (Williams provides chapter numbers most of the time but only one verse number – I have added the rest myself):
- Job – the sons of God presenting themselves before God in the first chapters. Williams – through Theophilus – interprets the “sons of God” as being godly men as opposed to the “sons of men” who were the ungodly. Lloyd Jones says in a footnote, “William William’s interpretation here would no longer be accepted.”
- Genesis 4:26 has Enosh born to Seth and then mentions that men began to call on the Lord. Theophilus sees this as Enosh gathering the few people who were believers into one fellowship. He makes a similar comment about Abraham and his house, which he says numbered a thousand or more, being organised as a fellowship under Abraham as priest, including everything suitable such as the things carried out in an experience meeting, as far as he understood them.
- Malachi 3:16-17 where “those that feared the Lord spoke with each other” and the Lord recorded it. This is an example and gives God’s positive view (especially v17) of these meetings.
- Zechariah 12:10-14 tells of 1) the future mourning for the pierced Jesus (Williams interprets this as looking forward to “the days of the gospel”), 2) mourning over their sin against him, 3) the gathering of people to mourn, 4) gathering in small groups, and 5) the separation of men and women, such as is necessary because of the confession of sin against Jesus. This is what happens, according to Theophilus, when the Spirit is poured out (v11) and is how meetings were organised during the Evangelical Awakening.
- The gospels, which record Jesus withdrawing with his disciples away from the crowds to explain truths and parables. These meetings led to the final one in the Garden of Gethsemane.
- Also in the gospels, where the disciples and the women who followed Jesus gathered in Jerusalem to talk about Jesus’ various appearances to some of them up to that point and wait until the Lord appeared among them. “This ever shows clearly that the best procedure for believers in all conditions…is to maintain regular attendance at the religious fellowships, until the day dawn, and the Lord Himself come into the midst.”
- Acts 1:12-14, 2:1-4 which tells of the disciples and women meeting and praying until the Spirit was poured out on them. This, according to Theophilus, is the experience of Christians that meet to this day, though to lesser degree, “…for our Lord has said that whenever two or three are gathered together in His name, He will be there in the midst to bless them”.
- Hebrews 10:24-27 which encourages Christians to meet together to encourage each other to love and good works, describing in verse 26 and 27 the terrible consequences of continuing in deliberate sin. This shows us, says Theophilus, we are to meet and “exhort each other lest we depart from the living God.”
Eusebius is satisfied with the Scriptural warrant, but now asks how to conduct them without dwelling on sin too much, rebuking others harshly and wounding them, confessing sin with an unbroken spirit and so awakening in others the desire to sin the same sin that was confessed.
Theophilus warns that many rules can bind people up instead of helping, but rules applied in wisdom and with sensitivity to the Holy Spirit can help with these things as he will explain in the next dialogue.
If you are still reading, I have a few reflections on the things above.
I agree with the benefits discussed about experience meetings. Meeting together can help in all those areas. I’d be surprised if any would disagree. In fact, meetings that keep people accountable not only for avoiding sin but also for maintaining a living Christian experience can only be good. Why not incorporate this in the normal weekly meeting? Is that not what is intended? And what incredible benefits for those involved. Not only do they learn from others how to avoid the tricks of the enemy and how to apply the gospel to their lives, they leave the meeting having met with God and enabled to personally testify to non-Christians about the grace of God. They can preach the gospel to others because they themselves are kept accountable to live it!
The scriptural proofs, however, look more like an example of someone trying to fit their experience into the Biblical narrative. Most persuasive is the exhortation to meet daily and the lifestyle of the disciples during Jesus’ life and the early Church. But why are these limited to the “experience meeting”? Cannot all of these things can easily also be included in a description of the New Testament Sunday meeting. Sure, Christians are encouraged to meet outside of the weekly meeting where different aspects of fellowship and worship are emphasised, but I don’t see a necessary warrant for Williams’ understanding that the Sunday meeting is the preaching meeting and week day meetings fill in what the Sunday meeting leaves out. If anything, I see a warrant for daily meeting together to encourage, with a set day and time on “the Lord’s day”.
Eusebius’ final questions are excellent, and it would do many modern preachers well to consider them also, i.e. how to challenge, rebuke and teach without discouraging the faint-hearted or sensitive. My fear is that even in my reflections above about being accountable to live the Christian life there may be a tendency to forbid people to actually be honest about where they are at and to understand that an intense spiritual experience is not a prerequisite for living the Christian life. I am also a big fan of the Christian life that grows through stages, and in the midst of this accountability I think there needs to be enough wisdom to allow people space to mature through taking ownership and developing in their understanding of Jesus and the Christian life. While Theophilus doesn’t discuss this, I think it is an essential part of maturing in Christ and another potential benefit of experience meetings. It is in fact one of the main reasons people are leaving institutional churches today.