Friday, July 11, 2008

The Fellowship Meeting

Another blog covers the fellowship meeting with helpful links - the meeting is a feature of Highland Communion seasons. Here is a good example of a fellowship meeting in recent memory.

It is important that the meeting is referred to as the fellowship meeting as well as the question (a more Gaelic reference). This is because it has this, not extempore exegesis or exposition, at its heart. It is about personal experience. These Fellowship Meetings probably began in Kiltearn in the 1650s. It began with a practical and experimental purpose and content. The great question concerns the marks of grace. It shows the responsibility and concern of the stronger for the weaker. Fellowship is one of the most abused and trivialised words in evangelicalism. The fellowship meeting points to the real meaning of fellowship which signifies a community sharing and participating in a common life.

Dr Kennedy, Dingwall defends and describes the fellowship meeting well in The Days of the Fathers in Ross-shire as follows:

The great object of the fellowship meeting was the mutual comfort and edification of believers, with a special reference to the cases of such, as were exercised with fears as to their interest in Christ. And how was it conducted? At first, only communicants were present; but, latterly, admission became indiscriminate. The minister presides, and, after prayer, praise and the reading of a portion of Scripture, he calk on any one who is anxious to propose a question to the meeting, to do so. This call is responded to by some man who rises, mentions a passage of Scripture describing some feature of the Christian character, and expresses his desire to ascertain the marks of those whom the passage describes, and the various respects in which they may differ from merely nominal Christians. The scope of the passage of Scripture is then opened up by the minister, and the exact import of the question founded upon it is explained. He then calls by name, successively, on such as are of repute for piety, experience, and gifts to "speak to the question." One after another rises, as he is called, states briefly his view of the question, and without attempting either to expound Scripture, or to deliver an exhortation, or venturing to parade his own experience, speaks from the heart what he has felt, and feared, and enjoyed under the power of the truth. Thereafter, the minister sums up all that has been said, correcting, confirming, and expanding as may be necessary, and makes a practical improvement of the whole. The person, who proposed the question, is then usually called to engage in prayer, and, with praise and the benediction, the meeting is closed. Such was the fellowship meeting in the good days of the fathers in Ross-shire.

"The men" seem, to some, to have been taken out of their proper place, when called to address a congregation, and to have assumed work properly and exclusively the minister's. They must be quite ignorant of "the men" and of their work with whom this objection can have any weight. If they were accustomed to expound, or if they attempted to preach, it might be said, that they were stepping out of their proper place, and invading the province of the minister: but they who were worthy of a place among "the men" never attempted to do so. They but spake to one another, of their mutual fears and trials, hopes and joys: and the position, as office-bearers, held by the most of them, and the gifts which the Lord had conferred on them all, entitled them to do so, in the more public position of the fellowship meeting. Never was a godly minister's office less endangered, than when he was countenancing and directing their service in "speaking to the question," and often has the time thus spent by him been, to his own soul, a season of refreshing.

There are many who think, that uneducated persons, such as "the men," could not possibly deliver addresses that might edify their hearers. Those who required "the excellency of speech and of wisdom in order to be pleased, would certainly not be gratified at the fellowship meeting, but those who "desired the sincere milk of the word that" they "might grow thereby," would as certainly be profited. Of such learning, as makes one proud, "the men" had none; but they knew their Bibles as few besides have known them. Their clear view of the Gospel system might bring a blush on the face of some professors of divinity if they heard and understood them; and some doctors, however learned, might sit at their feet, as they spake of the sorrows and the joys of the Christian's life. Some of them were men of distinguished talent, and all their mental vigour, untrammelled by learning, they brought to bear upon the things of God. Never, surely, is there a more attractive exercise of intellect than when, divested of all literary acquirements, it enters directly into "the mysteries of the kingdom," and comes forth in a panoply of Scripture truth. Light from heaven then irradiates all the gifts of the speaker. Traces of learning, mingled with the halo of this light, would be spots of darkness. Some of "the men" were able speakers. Orators they were, without attempting to be so, and utterly unconscious of their gift, who could powerfully affect the feelings of their hearers. Some of them gave utterance to sayings that could not be forgotten, and a few of which would earn a fame for genius in a more public sphere.

Of the question, "How far lay agency may be employed for the edification of the Church," the wisest practical solution has been furnished in the service of the fellowship meeting. It is surely desirable, that, if there are talented and godly men in a congregation, an opportunity should be afforded, for securing to others, the benefit of those gifts, with which the Lord has endowed them. If He has made them "apt to teach," an opportunity to teach should be given them by the church. This should be provided, so as not to invade the province of the ordained teacher, and so as to conserve and support the authority of his office. By no summary process ought a man to be converted into a preacher, however shining his gifts, and however eminent his godliness. But is he therefore to be kept silent? May no opportunity be given him to exhort his brethren, publicly as well as privately, so as to secure, to the Church at large, the benefit of his stores of Christian knowledge and experience? All these conditions have been met, in the service of the fellowship meeting. There an opportunity, to exercise their gifts, for the good of the Church, and without the least prejudice to the position and influence of the minister, was given to such as the Lord had qualified. How strange it is, that some, who neglect to avail them selves of such an arrangement, and who are disposed to frown upon it where it has been adopted, should not hesitate to exalt into the position, even of evangelists, neophytes, with crude views of the doctrines of the Gospel, owing subjection to no ecclesiastical authority, and furnishing no security whatever for the prudence and the purity of their doctrine and their life.

The service, in which "the men" were employed, was useful as a test. In the good days of the fathers, the discernment of the Church was keen, and very rarely could a man, who was a stranger to a life of godliness, be approved at the fellowship meeting. Satan required to do his utmost in making a passable hypocrite in these days. He sometimes, even then, succeeded in foisting a counterfeit on the confidence of the Church, but it was not often that he tried it. Usually, "of the rest durst no man join himself to them." Through this ordeal the eldership had to pass, ere they found a place in a session, over which a man of God presided. It would be well if this kind of trial were universal. The application of such a test might, in some cases, allow no session at all; but it may be fairly questioned whether this is a valid objection to its use. Now, and in some places, let a man's religion be all on the outside of him, if it is only a decent garb to look at from a distance, and if he is a man of influence, or of money, or of talent, this is quite enough to win for him an elder's place. An uneducated, but godly and praying elder, would be better than a host of such men as he; but better still, the man, in whom the gifts and the influence of the one were sanctified by the grace given to the other.