To the members of the church at Philadelphia,
We were discussing together this increasingly common phenomenon in the church which is characterized by a withdrawal from the church institute for the purpose of coming together with a small group of saints for Bible study and mutual edification.
It is necessary that you be warned of this, for it is a dangerous and evil practice. You must not participate in these meetings, for the evil is so great that it jeopardizes your very salvation.
We have spent a little time in our last letter discussing a bit of the history of this movement; and that brief look at its history has already given us occasion to point out some of the evils which characterize this movement. But we must now do this in more detail and see how this movement is a violation of the teaching of Scripture.
I want to say a word first about groups which meet together in private meetings while the members of the groups retain their membership in local congregations, and even go to church rather regularly. There are several remarks which should be made about this first of all.
In the first place, we must be careful to make proper distinctions. There is a tendency, increasingly popular, to form what are often called “Discussion Groups.” Perhaps your congregation has them. I know ours does. I do not want to criticize the people of God when, especially on Sunday evenings, these groups come together to discuss some worthwhile question of the truth of Scripture and how it relates to our walk and calling in the world. I think this is and can be a very good practice. After all, what possibly could be wrong with a practice of having people of God spend their time on Sunday evenings discussing matters of a spiritual character? I am in favor of such “Discussion Groups” and I far prefer them to what oftentimes goes on when people of God visit together on Sunday or during the week.
But there are dangers involved; and you must be aware of the dangers so that you can guard against them. History has shown that these groups, by whatever name you may call them, often deteriorate into groups which deal only with very subjective and mystical matters. If one is not on his guard, there is always a strong tendency to begin to speak of personal experiences of faith and to let the discussion go in directions of mysticism and subjectivism. This happened, e.g., when what the Dutch call “Gezelschappen” became meetings of the truly elect within the church. These individuals, who had had a conversion experience, came together to compare such experiences and to speak about them with others. Then you had a situation in which the “true kernel” of elect separated themselves from the “unconverted” in the congregation and became a church within a church. These groups were mystical and subjective and served to foster terrible pride. Others, yet unconverted, might come to these meetings, but they were expected to keep their mouths shut and learn from the experiences of those who had arrived at a height of holiness and assurance of faith to which many (if not most) in the congregation had not yet attained.
You may say that this is not a very great danger. Perhaps it is not; and I hope it is not. But you must be made aware, of the fact nevertheless, that this danger is always lurking around the corner. I think the real point here is: what is your reason for forming such a group? Is the reason that you wish to spend an evening (especially a Sunday evening) in good fellowship with God’s people to learn more of the Scriptures? If it is, well and good. May God bless you in your discussions. They are and can be spiritually edifying. Is your reason that you are dissatisfied with the preaching in your congregation? and think that you are not edified as you ought to be? Watch out! The dangers then are very great. You are then substituting these meetings for the preaching of the Word. That is dangerous business. Is your reason that you are dissatisfied with the low spiritual condition of the congregation as a whole? This can happen, you know. Especially in these times ,of worldliness and carnal materialism (evils which infect the lives of God’s people too), it is possible to become dissatisfied with the spiritual condition of the members of the congregation. It seems to you that the congregation has lost her first love, has drifted into carnal security, has become so attracted to the things of the world that the spiritual life of the congregation is almost gone. Then, in despair over this sad state of affairs, you form such a group of people to discuss spiritual things, for you have learned to your chagrin that most of the things your fellow members talk about are worldly, earthly, carnal things, and you have no interest in them.
If this is your reason for forming such a group, watch out! You are running grave risks. You can see why this is so if you think about it a little. I am not saying that it is impossible for the Church to drift into such worldliness. and carnality. I am not even saying that we have, so far, escaped from all this. I think it goes without saying that, we all are, more or less, influenced for the bad by the worldly spirit of our times. Nevertheless, this may not be a motive for forming a Bible-study group. Why not? Well, in the first place, the formation of such a Bible-study group is not a solution to the problem. You do not cure the worldliness of the congregation by drawing off to the side by yourself and with a few like-minded people to study Scripture “met een boekje in ‘n hoekje” (“with a book in a corner”). And your concern must always be for the congregation as a whole. But perhaps you say, I do not know how to solve the problem; nor does it seem to me that there is any improvement no matter how hard I or even the minister in his preaching tries to correct these evils. What am I to do?
Well, that brings me to the second place. It is exactly such a position as this which leads to the mysticism and subjectivism of which I spoke. You can see that it is only a short jump to the notion that, because the congregation is so worldly, most of the members are also unconverted. And, because you protest such a situation, it must be that you and a few like you are truly converted. And, you see, there you have it.
This is closely connected with the idea of mysticism and subjectivism. This has repeatedly happened in the church. The church falls upon bad times. There are those within the church who are concerned—and justifiably so. But then the pendulum swings to the other extreme. The concerned people feel that there is insufficient evidence of a genuine spiritual life, of godliness, of piety, of the fear of the Lord. And while their concern may be correct and entirely justified, the reaction is often to go to the extreme of emphasizing such subjective piety as may be lacking in the lives of many. And so this piety is considered the crucial thing. Perhaps people complain that the Church has too long emphasized the doctrinal aspect of the truth and the intellectual part of faith, and the result has been a dead orthodoxy. And, in an effort to right the balance, the pendulum swings to piety divorced from knowledge and to “evidences of conversion.” Of course, knowledge without experience is barren and sterile. The knowledge of faith without the works of faith is, as James says, useless. But experience divorced from true knowledge of the Scriptures is subjective and mystical.
And these people who are concerned about the matter may go the next step—quite an easy step to take, and say: we who are concerned show by our concern that we are genuinely converted. The others live in carnal security; we properly emphasize the Christian walk. And there again you have it. ”
What then is, the basic error of such Bible-study groups? The basic error is that the solution is sought in the wrong place. The solution is not to be found in a course of action which leads to gradual spiritual separation from the congregation. The solution cannot be found in establishing what amounts to a church within a church. The solution is to be found in exactly that place where all the solutions to the problems of the church are to be found: in the preaching of the Word.
But to this we shall return presently.
This brings up another question, however. Some groups which are formed within a. congregation are formed out of a sense of hopelessness with the situation in the church of which they are members. This has happened in the past. It is happening today both in this country and in the Netherlands. These people are convinced that the situation within their congregation and denomination is hopeless because their denomination has gone into false doctrine and officially adopted or condoned doctrines which are contrary to the Scriptures. These doctrines of a heretical nature have had their effect upon the whole life of the church. The result is that false doctrine has been and is being preached from the pulpits, and the preaching has become cold, lifeless, heretical, unedifying, and unable to feed the soul of him who hungers and thirsts after righteousness.
These people have attempted to have wrongs corrected in the normal ecclesiastical way of protest and appeal; but they have gotten exactly nowhere. Now they do not know what to do. But one thing they do not want to do is go through the bitter agony of church reformation and separation. They have decided that, at all costs, they are going to stay within their mother church. But they crave food for the soul. And so, while they stay within their mother church, they organize such Bible-study groups in order that they may have some means of spiritual nourishment and some way of edification.
Is not such a practice justified in the light of the circumstances?
Again, it is not.
Apart from the dangers which I mentioned above, these people become guilty of failure to perform their God-given calling as described, e.g., in Article XXVIII of the Confession of Faith. And they must not expect a blessing of God upon their activities when they will not obey God’s commands to them.
This involves, of course, the whole question of church reformation. I do not want to talk about this matter at this time. It is an important enough question, and certainly it deserves some extended discussion. But the time is not now. I recommend to you, if you can read the Dutch language, A. Kuyper’s book: “Tractaat van de Reformatie der Kerken.” This is required reading for all who find themselves in such a position. But if you cannot read the Dutch, it will not be of much help to you. Perhaps sometime it will be made available in English.
I only want to say this—by way of conclusion to our present letter: if you take this position, you face the judgment of God which He pronounces in the second commandment: “I will visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me. . .” You will have to see the consequences of your disobedience to the command of the Lord in your children and children’s children. And that is a dreadful thing. May God spare you that.
Fraternally in Christ,