Last time we told the sad, sad story of the oncer, depicting the historical and logical end of himself and of the church which is the victim of him and his kind. And we tried to bring the story closer home by emphasizing that the story whose end is so pathetic has its beginning in the sometimes apparently innocent and oft unheeded error of oncerism, which is a manifestation not absent in our own circles.
This time let us investigate oncerism a little more closely, that we may know what it really is and what is the attitude behind it, and what must be judged of it in the light of the fear of the Lord, whether it is in harmony or not with church membership in the fear of the Lord.
What is a Oncer?
I think we may safely define a oncer as a church member who sins by absenting himself except for one service per Sunday from divine worship without a proper reason.
A oncer is a church member. That stands to reason, of course. But it is also important that we remember that fact. That implies too that he is a member of a particular congregation. He is therefore, in the first place, obligated because of his connection with the congregation. He is not a mere individual, who may do as he pleases; but he is obligated to function with the congregation and as a member of the congregation. And he is obligated to meet with the congregation when it gathers for divine worship. It implies more, however. It implies that his own profession is that as member of that congregation he is a member of the body of Christ, believes in Him, loves Him, desires to be fed and nourished by Him, because he has the new life of Christ in him. That is his admitted position as a member of the church.
This church member absents himself from divine worship except for one service per Sunday. This implies, of course, in the first place, that it is a custom among us to hold at least two services per Sunday. It also raises the oft asked question: how often must I go to church? Supposing that the congregation of which I am a member holds 3 or 4 services per Sunday. Am I to be expected to attend all of them? Or to make the matter a little more concrete, supposing a congregation has two English and one Holland service, and supposing that I can understand both languages. Am I obligated before God to attend all three?
In this latter connection let us point out the following:
1. We must be careful how we ask the question. It is easy to ask the question as though it is a chore to go to church, to ask it from the viewpoint of what is the external compulsion under which I stand. From that point of view I think the answer should simply be given: You don’t have to attend church at all! However, the question may also be asked honestly and in a sincere desire to know what is good for us, and what from that viewpoint we ought to do. And then it deserves an answer, to be sure.
2. There are limits to our church-going capacity. There are, in the first place, all kinds of physical limits. If that were not the case, we could always be in church. We can only attend church on Sunday, for example, because there are six days in which we must labor. As long as you are on earth you cannot get away from that fact; and God doesn’t want you to get away from it. Even on Sunday there are certain physical limits. We understand very well at a glance that we could not sit in church all day. We have to eat, we may have to rest, we have certain necessary labors to perform, as, for example, the farmer his chores. Besides, there are certain mental limits with which we deal. Our mental capacity is not such that we can profitably spend the whole day in church, for example. . Anyone can understand that too. If we make work of going to church, put forth effort to understand the Word, exert ourselves to be fed through the ministry of the Word, then there is certainly a limit. One can assimilate and absorb only so much. After a certain point we become mentally dull and tired and cannot profitably listen anymore,. For that reason also we set time limits on our service even. We mentally reach the point of diminishing returns. And thus it is also with our spiritual capacity. All this, however, does not give us any license to be loose in this respect. On the contrary, it implies that we should make it our purpose to be as physically, mentally, and spiritually fit for attending divine worship as possible, and should bend every effort to spend as much time as practically and reasonably possible under the ministry of the Word.
3. With a view to that the congregation determines certain definite times when it shall gather for worship. Generally the rule is followed of having two services per Sunday of approximately an hour and a half in. length, with the second service either in the afternoon or the evening. Such a custom is established with a view to the average ability of the members to attend and profit by the ministry of the Word. It is the rule. That does not mean that everyone is able to follow that rule, that everyone is physically able, for example, to attend two services. Nor does it mean that there are not those who can profitably attend church three times, perhaps, on Sunday. But the general rule is, adapted to the capabilities, mental, spiritual, and physical, of the members, that we hold services twice per Sunday. There are also variations of that rule, made because of circumstances. In a certain congregation there may be a sizable element that requires the Dutch; then a Dutch service is added, perhaps. I have the privilege of attending also the Dutch service, if I can understand that language; but I am not necessarily obligated to attend. In fact, it may not even be good for a given person to attend three services. That is at least conceivable. In this connection we do well to remember once more that the question is spiritual. Your church attendance as such means nothing. The Christian is not interested in amassing a large number of good behavior marks. Nor should a consistory that faces the problem of the oncer fall into the error of simply seeking outwardly to enforce a 100% attendance at both services. That means absolutely nothing in itself. But the matter must always be approached from a spiritual viewpoint by ourselves and by the consistory that has the duty of disciplining. The question is: what is my inner obligation and need? Why does my church hold two services? Is that for me, and is it good for me, or not?
You may have noticed that in our definition of a oncer we did not add the qualification habitually. That was done intentionally.
You deal with a more advanced form of oncerism when you deal with the habitual oncer. But principally there is no difference between the occasional oncer and the habitual oncer. Every time I absent myself without proper reason from the services except one I am a oncer. It is true, of course, those who are habitually absent are the ones who are or should be labored with by the consistory. It is not the duty of the elders to run all over the country finding out why so and so wasn’t in church twice on a certain Sunday. For the most part they would find out anyway that there was a good reason. But that is after all not the |question here. We are not interested primarily in when the consistory should or should not act. We are interested in ourselves and our own attitude toward divine worship. And then it is important that we understand that there is habitual and non-habitual oncerism. Important it is, exactly because there is no principal difference between the two, and because for that very reason it is easy for the occasional oncer to become an habitual oncer. If I take the principal position that I may absent myself from the services as I please and without any plausible reason, I have made the fundamental error already. And then it is very easy to establish a bad habit. A habit, you know, begins with the first indulgence. And especially when we deal with a problem like this, which concerns the contrast between flesh and spirit, it is extremely easy to fall into the bad habit of oncerism. I deceive myself into thinking once or twice that I can stay home from church just because “I don’t feel like going”, and it is not long (unless I am enlightened) before I succumb to the same deceit every Sunday.
Hence, it is much better for ourselves if we simply omit the word habitual, and determinedly assume the position that we are oncers every time we fit under the definition given in the first part of our article.
The Proper Reason.
It would not be fair or edifying, of course, simply to brand everyone a oncer who comes to church only once on Sunday. Nor is that our intention. There may very well be good reasons why a person cannot come to church. The essential error of the oncer is, however, not a lack of ability to attend the services, but a lack of desire. And with that in mind we may treat this matter of a proper reason.
First of all, however, we want to emphasize again that this is to a large extent a personal, spiritual matter. We do not intend to pass judgment on all the reasons that are passed off as proper excuses for failure to be in church when the saints assemble. Each one must answer for himself before God. The consistory that deals with the problem will soon realize this too. Sometimes you can run into a situation where the reason given is so foolproof that you can’t lay a finger on it, and yet you have a question in your soul, and’ you after all are not convinced. All you can do in a case like that is to point a person to his spiritual obligation and responsibility, and leave him to answer before God.
We may nevertheless ask the question: what is a proper reason? And: what reasons, if any, are principally and per se to be judged improper? And we may point out too, that our starting-point may never be: can I find a foolproof reason for staying away from church this morning? We very easily do that. Rut such an attitude does not spring from a living faith at all. On the contrary, we intend to speak of these possible reasons only in order that we may honestly and in faith examine ourselves in the light of the fear of the Lord, may see if there be any evil way in us, and may thus be led in the way everlasting.
Hence, before we enter upon this phase of the subject, we do well to say with the Psalmist: “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: and s6e if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”.
And we do well to see to it that it is our sincere and inmost desire and intention to heed the admonition of, not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is.