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Good Words 1860
What of Lay-Preaching?


Is lay-preaching wrong? Is it inexpedient? Is this sign of our time good, or bad, or indifferent? We see no great difficulty in this vexed question, and there really needs little to be said on it. Some take very high ground, and say that any Christian man may preach. Did Wilberforce transgress the laws of any Church, they will argue, when he wrote the "Practical View?" Might he not have read its successive chapters to any audiences that might choose to hear him, whether fifty, five hundred, or five thousand? Might he not have spoken them? And what is this but preaching? For our own part, we frankly grant it, and say, when you get a Wilberforce, by all means let him preach. When the Earl of Shaftesbury, some years ago, in the Lords, proposed the abolition or some large modification of the Conventicle Act, and spoke of the good that might result if Christian men, though without episcopal ordination, should read the Bible and pray with groups of poor wicked peasants in a work-shed, or barn, or barrack, we admired the question with which the worthy Earl of Congleton puzzled the mitred heads :—How does the Bible say, (Acts viii. 1, 4,) that when the persecution arose against the church which wa3 at Jerusalem, and they were all scattered abroad throughout the region of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles, .... they that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the word, if lay-preaching be unseriptural? We admire it still, and say from the depths of our hearts —Would God that all the Lord's people were prophets ! And yet, were we in a mood for argument, it could be said that the disciples in this case were miraculously endowed, so that the fact of their preaching cannot be construed into a precedent when miraculous gifts have ceased. It could be argued, that in a partially - organised church, many anomalies are tolerated, and even necessary, which would not be tolerated in a church thoroughly organised. When a man is off the road, if he is determined to move only on the road, he cannot move at all. It could be argued, that when the Westminster Confession asserts, for example, that the civil magistrate "hath power to call synods," the clause is on all hands understood to apply to an imperfectly-constituted state of the Church.

But, on the other hand, those who would proscribe lay-preaching, whether from jealous regard to the status of the ministry, or to the imprimatur of literary or theological faculties, ought to see that all that is really solid in this question is covered by the old commonplace—the exception strengthens the rule. The right to wear gowns and bands—the right to wear surplices and lawn sleeves, we sacredly respect. But a man can preach without this right. John Bunyan was never regularly ordained; others may rise up bearing the unmistakeable stamp of God. Must their mouths be shut? The Church of Rome is wiser here than some Protestant Churches. If any of her sons will make a crusade in her cause, she carefully provides for him a niche within her pale; she bids him tie a rope round his waist, shave his head, nurse his beard, starve his body; she loads him with relics, and lets him indulge his evangelistic knight-errantry, if he will, beyond the wall of China. And this is one popular element at least in that Church ''out of which there is no salvation." Again we say, the exception strengthens the rule. The most scrupulous Churchman may feel reassured and cheerful; great or efficient lay-preachers do not appear often. And when we view the vast work to be done— the tide of profaneness that rolls along our streets, whose spent waves break in even on the seclusion of rustic parishes—the millions spent on drink— the solid front which infidelity and loathly forms of vice present—and the powerlessness of faithfully-administered ordinances; when we see how the growth of our manufacturing towns and cities has outrun the supply of the means of grace so far that tens of thousands within hearing of the Sabbath-bell are as estranged from the gospel as the Tartars that roam the desert—the young prowling in "winged raggedness" through dense lanes and wynds, from which jails are filled, the old dying without knowing how to put words together to pray—as ministers of Christ, and by every consideration of religion and of patriotism, we appeal to every man who loves his Saviour in the words of Dr Guthrie, (on "Ezekiel," p. 13):— "Think not that this noblest work is our exclusive privilege, nor stand back as if you had neither right nor call to set to your hand. What although in the Church you hold no rank? No more does the private who wears neither stripes on his arm nor epaulettes on his shoulder; but although a private, may he not die for the colours which it is not his privilege to carry? . . . . Where sinners are perishing—where opportunity offers—where the rule, ' Let all things be done decently and in order,' is not outraged and violated, call it preaching if you choose, but, in God's name, let hearers preach.....Thousands, tens of thousands, are dying in their sins! Although every minister were as a flaming fire in the service of his God, every bishop were a Latimer, every reformer were a Knox, every preacher were a Whitfield, [every missionary were a Martyn, the work is greater than ministers can accomplish; and if men will not submit that the interests of nations and the success of armies shall be sacrificed to routine and forms of office, much less should these be tolerated where the cause of souls is at stake."

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