THE CHURCH OF CHRIST A FREE
A SERMON DELIVERED BEFORE THE
RIGHT REVEREND HENRY A. NEELY,
BISHOP OF MAINE,
ON THE OCCASION OF THEIR
FIRST ANNUAL MEETING, IN ST. MARK’S CHURCH,
Publication No. 6.
FREE CHURCH ASSOCIATION,
Copies will be supplied gratuitously upon application.
Ps. CX., III.
"In the day of Thy power shall the people offer Thee free-will offerings with an holy worship." (Prayer-Book Version.)
"Thy people shall offer willingly in the day of Thy power in the majesty of holiness." (Jebb.).
The 110th Psalm is one of the prophetical Psalms relating to the Messiah, and it exhibits two of the offices of the MessiahHis Priesthood and His Royalty--in very remarkable terms. That its author is David, and that David therein speaks, by the Holy Ghost, of the expected Christ, is both declared by our Lord, and confessed by the Jews themselves. St. Paul also appeals to it in proof of the superiority of the Priesthood of Christ over that of Aaron. And though we had not this explicit and incontrovertible testimony to guide us in our application of the prophecy, we surely could apply it to no other than to Him who offered Himself, once for all, a sacrifice for sin, and who, "not with the blood of bulls and of goats, but with His own blood, entered into heaven .itself," there to make perpetual [1/2] intercession for us, and to reign with an universal dominion. "The Lord sware, and will not repent, thou art a Priest forever after the order of Melchisedek." Such is the Priesthood of Him whom we confess and adore as Christ, and of Him alone. "The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit Thou on my right hand until I make Thine enemies Thy footstool. The rod of Thy strength the Lord shall send out of Zion. Rule Thou in the midst of Thine enemies." Such is the Royalty of our adorable Master and of Him alone. The scribes could offer no interpretation of these mysterious words; but we find them completely and gloriously fulfilled in Him whom God "hath exalted far above all principality, and power, and might and dominion, and every name that is named, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God, the Father."
To Him, therefore, must be referred this other specific declaration of the same prophecy, “In the day of Thy power shall the people offer Thee free-will offerings with an holy worship," (or in the beauty or majesty of holiness). "In the day of Thy power." There should first be a day of humiliation,--"He shall drink of the brook in the way" then a day of power; "therefore shall He lift up His head." Thus the prophet writes, and now hear the historian. He made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men, and being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross; therefore God hath highly exalted Him." Most deeply did He drink, for our sake, of the waters of affliction; and, refreshed by that bitter draught, He rose as a giant in His strength. To the night wherein He yielded Himself as if through weakness to the dominion of death succeeded the day of His power; the day when He was manifested as the conqueror of death, and when, therefore, in the full consciousness of His kingly possessions and prerogatives, He could declare "All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth." From that day, then, and throughout that day, to make good the prediction of the Psalmist, (and for the complete justification of faith) this should [2/3] have been seen, viz., that the people of this Almighty and Universal King, thus "declared to be the Son of God with power," have "offered unto Him free-will offerings with an holy worship." Not an exacted tribute, but free-will oferings, and not an offering of their substance merely, but worship, which implies and involves self-devotion on the part of the worshipper to the Being unto whom such homage is paid. This, I say, should have been seen among the subjects of the Messiah's kingdom, if Messiah has come, and the day of His power. And it has been seen; specially at that time when His throne was established upon the holy hill of Zion, but continually, also, if not always so conspicuously, wherever His name and His redeeming work have been made known. Were it possible that these effects should cease to be exhibited, then it would be manifest that the day of His power, as it was disclosed to the prophet's vision, had passed. For the offering of free-will offerings, and of glad and holy worship to the Messiah, was not merely to be contemporaneous with His assumption of power, but the proper and perpetual result of His exaltation and sovereignty. When and while He should reign, men should be inwardly and effectively constrained to such offerings and such homage. Does the prophet mean less than this? Could he have meant less than this when contemplating that sacrifice of the Son of God in men's behalf, whereby He became their prevailing Redeemer and Intercessor; when beholding Him entering the Holy of Holies to make atonement with His own blood for the sins of a rebellious world? Was it possible, in any preconception of it, that the power of that King who had paid such a ransom for His people could be less constraining than this upon their hearts? Did not that ever-blessed Priest and King expect and signify that His wondrous mediatorial work should have this efficacy when he declared, "I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me? And, finally, does the virtue of Christianity exist, or has it not disappeared, where men's belief in Christ does not compel them to come to Him with free-will offerings, an holy worship, an unreserving devotion?
 I have said that the Psalmist's prophecy has had its fulfilment in every generation of the Christian era. It has it in our own. But I sometimes feel, my brethren, that the power of the risen, exalted, reigning Christ could never have had a feebler witness in the character and spirit of His professed subjects and followers than in our own age, and our own branch of the Church. I know it would be unjust to affirm this; but when I see so few really presenting their bodies a living sacrifice to God, or crying, "Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do," in comparison with the many ready to obey every behest of self or the world; so few instantly and gladly responding, “Here am I, send me," when the call comes up from every quarter of the land for laborers to reap the waiting harvest; and so few hastening to lay their possessions at the feet of Christ when His poor are famishing for want of the bread of life, and the cause of His Church is halting and languishing for lack of so base a thing as money, money which is lying in the vaults of nominally Christian men, my heart often prompts the utterance, Is this, O risen, ascended sovereign Lord, is this, even this, the day of Thy power?
The occasion which calls me hither to-night might well prompt a like utterance. I have been asked to speak in behalf of an Association which has for its special object to open the House of God, so that all who would enjoy its privileges, and bring their free-will offerings to His altar, and all who can be induced to seek there for themselves the knowledge of Divine truth and the grace of Divine sacraments, may be admitted thereto freely, without respect of persons, as to the common earthly home of God's children. What a commentary upon the spiritual state of the Church is it that a special association could even seem to be needed, and special efforts required for the accomplishment of such an object! What more unlike the freewill offerings of the day of the Redeemer's power than exacted pew-rents and arbitrary taxation upon the privilege of entering the courts of the Lord! What more unlike a holy worship than that of those who seek or are content to appropriate to themselves the exclusive use of the house of prayer! Wherein are bargainings for sittings in the temple itself less a profanation of [4/5] the sanctuary than bargainings for sheep and oxen for sacrifices in the outer courts? Wherein does he who says to the poor man, seeking place in the House of God, "Stand thou here, or sit there under my footstool," wherein does he differ, for the better, from the Pharisee who thanked God that he was not "as this publican?" Yet this enormous evil still confronts us, which has too long been suffered to dishonor the name and tarnish the glory, and obstruct the progress, of the Church, That the House of God is parcelled off by privilege; that the poor are practically debarred from the worship and instructions of the sanctuary, being admitted thereto only on the sufferance of proprietors; that churches which should be open continually to thousands are opened but twice or thrice in the week for the few hundreds who have purchased the right of exclusive occupancy and use with money; that instead of high and low, rich and poor, meeting together before the Lord, the: Maker of them all, in the grandest temples that art can devise or devotion rear to the honor of His name, confessing there before Him their common dependence, pleading there the merits of a common Saviour, rejoicing there in their common brotherhood, and exulting in the gladness of a common hope,--instead of this, the poor and lowly either find no place where they can join in the worship of God in a consecrated building, or are thrust of into meagre mission chapels, as if unworthy even to confess their sins within the same walls, and before the same altar, as their more favored brethren. Is it not time then that men who fear the LORD, and would avert His curse from the vine of His own planting, should band themselves together, and put forth vigorous and unceasing efforts to rouse the conscience of the Church, and to rid her of such a disgraceful burden? It is but too true that many other Christian bodies, I know not but that I might say all of those in this country, are involved in the same sin--if it be a sin. The large and influential denomination of Methodists, losing, as they have increased in numbers and wealth, much of their original and godly simplicity, have yielded to the clamours of that worldly and self-seeking spirit which demands the pew-system, The Romanists, whose open [5/6] churches on the Continent of Europe, thronged with mingled worshippers of every class, extort eulogiums from the most reluctant of travellers, here exact a rental for the sittings in their churches. What then? Shall we continue to follow a multitude to do evil, or shall we continue to lead others into evil? For I believe it may be fairly said that we, or our immediate ecclesiastical ancestors, are responsible for the introduction of that unchristian device which has been so convenient and acceptable to the worldliness of these times. Ought we not, on the contrary, to be first and foremost in casting off this reproach from the Christian name? I thank God that, whatever our practice may have been, I have seldom known any among us who would undertake to justify the pew-system on any other or higher grounds than those of convenience or practical necessity. In that thorough and prolonged discussion of twenty years ago (in which my Rev. Brother, the present Rector of this Parish, took an active and honorable part) I remember no disputant who did not confess that, if not absolutely unchristian, this system, in many ways, obstructs the Church in that work which it is her mission and her duty to perform. Many advantages have been claimed for it, some of which are sufficiently obvious; but they appeal chiefly to that spirit which seeks "its own," its own ease and comfort, and self-gratification, "not the things which are Jesus Christ's." It is often so modified as to efface from it many objectionable features; but after all, and at its best, such charges as these remain, and must forever remain, true against it: first, it is unscriptural in principle, "marring the ideal of the worship of the sanctuary," infringing upon those privileges to which every child of God, every member of the household of Christ, is equally entitled in the House of God, introducing worldly and social distinctions there where they should neither be seen nor considered, substituting "a low worldly principle of hire and purchase for the religious principle of presenting all that we do for the ministrations of the sanctuary in the form of offerings made directly to God and laid devoutly and reverently upon the altar," and for the manner and measure of the Christian law of giving, “freely," ("every man according to his [6/7] ability") the payment of a tax assessed without regard to the ability of the worshipper; secondly, it necessarily and grievously obstructs the aggressive work of the Church, because it requires men to pay for the privilege of hearing the gospel before they have come to regard such hearing as a privilege, and offers no invitation and no place to the indifferent, although there may be vacant sittings enough in the appropriated pews; thirdly, it shuts out from the House of God that class especially dear to Him, the poor;--not merely the abject poor, but the poor, generally, as distinguished from the rich--and even where separate provision is made for them, it excludes them from that contact and those associations with their brethren which God has ordained in His Church, and the preservation of which is of vital importance to the spiritual integrity of both classes. O, my brethren! we know not what we do, what injury to ourselves, as well as what dishonor to the name we bear, when we have thus said to the poor, "We have no need of you, and no place for you."
Yet, notwithstanding that such is the character, and such the effects of the prevalent pew-system, it is alleged, and very generally supposed, that it must, nevertheless, be tolerated as a "necessary evil." What does the Church of God, the weapons of whose warfare are "not carnal, but spiritual, and mighty through God to the breaking down of strongholds," what does she know of necessary evils? What is her mission but to extirpate all evil? And must she not, first of all, see to it that her own hands are pure, her aim single, her charity as broad and far-reaching as that of Christ Himself, and that she is not suffering herself to be thwarted in the accomplishment of her mission by any evil spirits which have found a hiding place in her own bosom?
They who offer such an apology for the continuance of a system condemned by the conscience of every thoughtful Christian man mean, doubtless, that in this country, and in the present state of religion amongst us, churches cannot be built, nor the clergy supported, without some such concession to the selfish and worldly disposition of those who [7/8] have money to give for such objects. But the erroneousness and weakness of this plea has already been experimentally demonstrated. It was boldly affirmed a quarter of a century ago, that no example could then be adduced of the successful maintenance of a Free Church unless under certain exceptional conditions. The statement was far from true then, and to day there are whole Dioceses wherein scarcely a pewed church can be found, and wherein the free-will offerings of the people for the erection of churches and the sustentation of the clergy far exceed the amount formerly realized under the rejected system. The single-handed efforts of a comparatively few men, whose consciences would not suffer them to compromise with such an evil, have, by the blessing of God, already demonstrated that our Christianity had not sunk to so low an ebb as appearances indicated; and it may be that the day of our humiliation is soon to be succeeded by a day of power, in which shall be exhibited, as never before, the title of this Church to be regarded as the truest and purest representative of the Catholic Church in this land.
To that end there is still work enough for us all, my brethren, not in one direction merely, but in many directions. Free and open churches will not be a panacea for all our ills, nor can the liberal maintenance of them be regarded as a full accomplishment of our duty. On the contrary, they necessarily involve, that the blessings of them may be realized, a vast accession to the labours of the clergy, and with those labours the vigorous and patient co-operation of the laity. I trust that you who have immediately in view the opening of the house of God freely, to all classes, look on to still nobler objects, for the attainment of which this is an essential condition. The salvation of souls, which constrained the eternal Son of God to humble Himself even to the death of the cross, is the only object, the attainment of which should satisfy the hearts and aspirations of His professed followers. And to that end men must hear the word of life; and having heard, believingly, through the illuminating and constraining influence of the Holy Ghost, they must be gathered into the Church ("the Lord added to the Church, daily, such [8/9] as were being saved"), incorporated into Christ, that, partaking of His life, and nurtured by His grace, they may grow up unto a perfect spiritual manhood. But those who have been hitherto excluded from the house of God will not instantly flock to it when its doors are thrown wide open, and their rights within it fully acknowledged. They have been so long debarred from its salutary influences, so long exposed, without warning or restraint, to the seductions of a sinful and godless world, so long accustomed to devote the leisure of the Lord's day to mere sensual recreation, that now vast numbers of them will be found, at first, indifferent to the opportunities and blessings which an open Church may afford.
Nor will stirring and faithful sermons, and beautiful and attractive services, with all the accessories which may be legitimately introduced in Divine worship, of themselves fulfil the necessary requirements. But we must go out into the highways and hedges, and lovingly compel these neglected ones to come in; and when they have come, we must extend to them the hand of recognition and sympathy. And that care and sympathy must follow them back to their homes; must exhibit itself in a brotherly regard for their wants, and trials, and temptations; must provide for the spiritual instruction of their little ones; must, in a word, manifest to them the living, loving Christ, and His present power and tenderness.
To such a work as this are you called, my brethren, as the immediate sequence of your present efforts, if you would see such fruits as are alone worthy of your labours. But a great and glorious step will have been gained when you have obtained your first demand. That demand is, I hope, not merely for more Free Churches, and more mission chapels, as a necessary provision for the poor, but for the practical recognition everywhere of the principle that the house of God ought to be as free as God's sunlight and His air. And I do not believe that the task will long be difficult, for the conscience of the Church is already gained, and experience has already shown that many objections formerly urged, with much plausibility, are futile. What though from many quarters the familiar outcry should again arise against [9/10] this needed reformation? What though the tenure of many of our existing church-edifices is such that the change could not at once be effected without a more general consent than can reasonably be anticipated; what though the worldly and self-seeking, upon whom we have leaned too much in times past, to our shame and loss, should refuse their co-operation to build churches wherein they are to have no special place or prerogatives, or to support the parochial clergy, unless what they give secures for them certain exclusive privileges in the sanctuary? Are there not now enough God-fearing, Christ-loving men in the American Church to prosecute this righteous cause successfully against such clamours and such selfishness? Let these become the zealous patrons of existing Free Churches, and neither ask nor accept for themselves any special place or privileges in the Lord's house, and let them contribute of their substance largely to erect, in every important centre and the most eligible locations, not insignificant chapels, but grand and attractive churches, thoroughly furnished and adequately served, which shall be forever freely open to all of God's children, and the cause will be won in this generation. Then shall our reproach be rolled away, and the path cleared to nobler attainments. Then shall our Lord be honoured, and his cause sustained by the abundant offerings of a willing people; And with them shall be offered to that same adorable Lord a holy worship,--holy, because inspired by His power moving upon the heart,--holy, because offered in the recognition of the equal rights and claims of all before Him, their common Redeemer,--holy, because humble, divested of every element of Pharisaism, the pure offering of a people whose life is hid with Christ in God.
God hasten the day when thus again the crucified, the risen, the ascended Lord shall be worshipped by a willing people in the beauty of holiness.