The Church Life and Growth
GEORGE Müller OF BRISTOL
THROUGHOUT Mr. Müller's journal we meet scattered and fragmentary suggestions as to the true conception of Christian teaching and practice, the nature and office of the Christian ministry, the principles which should prevail in church conduct, the mutual relations of believers, and the Spirit's relation to the Body of Christ, to pure worship, service, and testimony. These hints will be of more value if they are crystallized into unity so as to be seen in their connection with each other.
The founder of the orphan houses began and ended his public career as a preacher, and, for over sixty years, was so closely related to one body of believers that no review of his life can be complete without a somewhat extended reference to the church in Bristol of which he was one of the earliest leaders, and, of all who ministered to it, the longest in service.
His church-work in Bristol began with his advent to that city and ended only with his departure from it for the continuing city and the Father's House. The joint ministry of himself and Mr. Henry Craik has been traced already in the due order of events; but the development of church-life, under this apostolic ministry, furnishes instructive lessons which yield their full teaching only when gathered up and grouped together so as to secure unity, continuity, and completeness of impression.
When Mr. Müller and Mr. Craik began joint work in Bristol, foundations needed to be relaid. The church-life as they found it, was not on a sufficiently scriptural basis and they waited on God for wisdom to adjust it more completely to His word and will. This was the work of time, for it required the instruction of fellow believers so that they might be prepared to cooperate, by recognizing scriptural and spiritual teaching; it required also the creation of that bond of sympathy which inclines the flock to hear and heed the shepherd's voice, and follow a true pastoral leadership. By the outset of their ministry, these brethren carefully laid down some principles on which their ministry was to be based. On May 23, 1832, they frankly stated, at Gideon Chapel, certain terms on which alone they could take charge of the church: they must be regarded as simply God's servants to labour among them so long as, and in such way as might be His will, and under no bondage of fixed rules; they desired pew-rents to be done away with, and voluntary offerings substituted, etc.
There was already, however, a strong conviction that a new start was in some respects indispensable if the existing church-life was to be thoroughly modelled on a scriptural pattern. These brethren determined to stamp upon the church certain important features such as these: Apostolic simplicity of worship, evangelical teaching, evangelistic work, separation from the world, systematic giving and dependence on prayer. They desired to give great prominence to the simple testimony of the Word, to support every department of the work by free-will offerings, to recognize the Holy Spirit as the one presiding and governing Power in all church assemblies, and to secure liberty for all believers in the exercise of spiritual gifts as distributed by that Spirit to all members of the Body of Christ for service. They believed it scriptural to break bread every Lord's day, and to baptize by immersion; and, although this latter has not for many years been a term of communion or of fellowship, believers have always been carefully taught that this is the duty of all disciples.
It has been already seen that in August, 1832, even persons in all, including these two pastors, met at Bethesda Chapel to unite in fellowship, without any formal basis or bond except that of loyalty to the Word and Spirit of God. This step was taken in order to start anew, without the hindrance of customs already prevailing, which were felt to be unscriptural and yet were difficult to abolish without discordant feeling; and, from that date on, Bethesda Chapel has been the home of an assembly of believers who have sought steadfastly to hold fast the New Testament basis of church-life.
Such blessed results are largely due to these beloved colleagues in labour who never withheld their testimony, but were intrepidly courageous and conscientiously faithful in witnessing against whatever they deemed opposed to the Word. Love ruled, but was not confounded with laxity in matters of right and wrong; and, as they saw more clearly what was taught in the Word, they sought to be wholly obedient to the Lord's teaching and leading, and to mould and model every matter, however minute, in every department of duty, private or public, according to the expressed will of God.
In January, 1834, all teachers who were not believers were dismissed from the Sunday-school; and, in the Dorcas Society, only believing sisters were accepted to make clothes for the destitute. The reason was that it had been found unwise and unwholesome to mix up or yoke together believers and unbelievers.*
*2 Cor. vi.14-18.
Such association proved a barrier to spiritual converse and injurious to both classes, fostering in the unbelievers a false security, ensnaring them in a delusive hope that to help in Christian work might somehow atone for rejection of Jesus Christ as a Saviour, or secure favour from God and an open door into heaven. No doubt all this indiscriminate association of children of God with children of the world in a "mixed multitude" is unscriptural. Unregenerate persons are tempted to think there is some merit at least in mingling with worshippers and workers, and especially in giving to the support of the gospel and its institutions. The devil seeks to persuade such that it is acceptable to God to conform externally to religious rites and forms, and take part in outward acts of service and sacrifice, and that He will deal leniently with them, despite their unbelief and disobedience. Mr. Müller and Mr. Craik felt keenly that this danger existed and that even in minor matters there must be a line of separation, for the sake of all involved.
When, in 1837, in connection with the congregation at Bethesda, the question was raised-- commonly known as that of close communion-- whether believers who had not been baptized as such should be received into fellowship, it was submitted likewise to the one test of clear scripture teaching. Some believers were conscientiously opposed to such reception, but the matter was finally and harmoniously settled by "receiving all who love our Lord Jesus into full communion, irrespective of baptism," and Mr. Müller, looking back forty-four years later upon this action, bears witness that the decision never became a source of dissention.*[†]
[† WStS Note: We respectfully disagree with Mr. Müller's honest position, believing that Baptism is commanded of all believers. "19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: 20 teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen" (Matthew 28:19,20).]
In all other church matters, prayer and searching the Word, asking counsel of the Holy Oracles and wisdom from above, were the one resort, and the resolution of all difficulties. When, in the spring of 1838, sundry questions arose somewhat delicate and difficult to adjust, Mr. Müller and Mr. Craik quietly withdrew from Bristol for two weeks, to give themselves to prayer and meditation, seeking of God definite direction.
The matters then at issue concerned the scriptural conception, mode of selection and appointment, scope of authority and responsibility, of the Eldership; the proper mode of observance of the Lord's Supper, its frequency, proper subjects, etc. Nothing is ever settled finally until settled rightly, nor settled rightly until settled scripturally. A serious peril confronted the church-- not of controversy only, but of separation and schism; and in such circumstances mere discussion often only fans the embers of strife and ends in hopeless alienation. These spiritually minded pastors followed the apostolic method, referring all matters to the Scriptures as the one rule of faith and practice, and to the Holy Spirit as the presiding Presence in the church of God; and they purposely retired into seclusion from the strife of tongues and of conflicting human opinion, that they might know the mind of the Lord and act accordingly. The results, as might be foreseen, were clear light from above for themselves, and a united judgment among the brethren; but more than this, God gave them wisdom so to act, combining the courage of conviction with the meekness and gentleness of Christ, as that all clouds were dispelled and peace restored.*
For about eight years, services had been held in both Gideon and Bethesda chapels; but on April 19, 1840, the last of the services conducted by Mr. Müller and Mr. Craik was held at Gideon,-- Bethesda, from this time on, becoming the central place of assembly. The reasons for this step were somewhat as follows:
These joint pastors strongly felt, with some others, that not a few of the believers who assembled at Gideon Chapel were a hindrance to the clear, positive, and united testimony which should be given both to the church and world; and it was on this account that, after many meetings for prayer and conference, seeking to know God's mind, it was determined to relinquish Gideon as a place of worship. The questions involved affected the preservation of the purity and simplicity of apostolic worship, and so the conformity of church-life to the New Testament pattern. These well-yoked pastors were very jealous for the Lord God of hosts, that, among the saints to whom they ministered, nothing should find a lodgment which was not in entire accord with scriptural principles, precept, and practices.
Perhaps it is well here to put on record, even at risk of repetition, the principles which Mr. Müller and his colleague were wont to enforce as guards or landmarks which should be set up and kept up, in order to exclude those innovations which always bring spiritual declension.
1. Believers should meet, simply as such, without reference to denominational lines, names, or distinctions, as a corrective and preventive of sectarianism.
2. They should steadfastly maintain the Holy Scriptures as the divine rule and standard of doctrine, deportment, and discipline.
3. They should encourage freedom for the exercise of whatever spiritual gifts the Lord might be pleased by His Spirit to bestow for general edification.
4. Assemblies on the Lord's day should be primarily for believers, for the breaking of bread, and for worship, unbelievers sitting promiscuously among saints would either hinder the appearance of meeting for such purposes, or compel a pause between other parts of the service and the Lord's Supper.
5. The pew-rent system should be abolished, as promoting the caste spirit, or at least the outward appearance of a false distinction between the poorer and richer classes, especially as pew-holders commonly look on their sittings as private property.
6. All money contributed for pastoral support, church work, and missionary enterprises at home and abroad should be by free-will offerings.
It was because some of these and other like scriptural, principles were thought to be endangered or compromised by practices prevailing at Gideon Chapel before Mr. Müller and Mr. Craik took charge, that it seemed best on the whole to relinquish that chapel as a place of worship. As certain customs there obtaining had existed previously, it seemed to these godly-minded brethren that it would be likely to cause needless offence and become a root of bitterness should they require what they deemed unscriptural to be renounced; and it seemed the way of love to give up Gideon Chapel after these eight years of labour there, and to invite such as felt called on to separate from every sectarian system, and meet for worship where free exercise would be afforded for every spiritual gift, and where New Testament methods might be more fully followed, to assemble with other believers at Bethesda, where previous hindering conditions had not existed.
Mr. Müller remained very intimately connected with Bethesda and its various outgrowths, for many years, as the senior pastor, or elder,-- though onlyprimus inter pares, i.e., leader among equals. His opinions about the work of the ministry and the conduct of church-life, which did so much to shape the history of these churches, therefore form a necessary part of this sketch of the development of church-life.
It was laid upon his heart frequently to address his brethren in the ministry of the Word and the curacy of souls. Everywhere, throughout the world, he welcomed opportunities for interviews, whether with many or few upon whom he could impress his own deep conviction to the vital secrets of elective service in the pulpit and pastorate. Such meetings with brethren in the midst numbered hundreds and perhaps thousands in the course of his long life, and as his testimony was essentially the same on all occasions, a single utterance may be taken as the type of all. During his American tours, he gave an hour's address which was reported and published, and the substance of which may therefore be given.
First of all he laid great stress upon the need of conversion. Until a man is both truly turned unto God and sure of this change in himself he is not fitted to convert others. The ministry is not a human profession, but divine vocation. The true preacher is both a herald and awitness, and hence must back up his message by his personal testimony from experience.
But even conversion is not enough: there must be an intimate knowledge of the Lord Jesus. One must know the Lord as coming near to himself, and know the joy and strength found in hourly access. However it be done, and at any cost, the minister of Christ must reach this close relationship. It is an absolute necessity to peace and power.
Growth in happiness and love was next made very prominent. It is impossible to set limits to the experience any believer who casts himself wholly on God, surrenders himself wholly to God, and cherishes deep love for His word and holy intimacy with Himself. The first business of every morning should be to secure happiness in God.
He who is to nourish others must carefully feed his own soul. Daily reading and study of the Scriptures, with such prayer, especially in the early morning hours, was tenuously urged. Quietness before God should be habitually cultivated, calming the mind and freeing it from preoccupation. Continuous reading of the Word, in course, will throw light upon the general teaching of the Word, and reveal God's thoughts in their variety and connection, and go far to correct erroneous views.
Holiness must be the supreme aim: prompt obedience to all known truth, a single eye in serving God, and zeal for His glory. Many a life has been more or less a failure because habits of heart well pleasing to God have been neglected. Nothing is more the crowning grace than the unconscious grace of humility. All praise of man robs God of His own honour. Let us therefore be humble and turn all eyes unto God.
The message must be gotten from God, if it is to be with power.
"Ask God for it," said Mr. Müller, "and, be not satisfied until the heart is at rest. When the text is obtained ask further guidance in meditating upon it, and keep in constant communion so as to get God's mind in the matter and His help in delivery. Then, after the work is done, pray much for blessing, as well as in advance."
He then told some startling facts as to seed sown many years before, but even now yielding fruit in answer to prayer.
He laid also special emphasis upon expounding the Scripture. The word of God is the staple of all preaching; Christ and nothing else the centre of all true ministry of the Word. Whoever faithfully and constantly preaches Christ will find God's word not returning to him void. Preach simply. Luther's rule was to speak so that an ignorant maid-servant could understand; if she does, the learned professor certainly will; but it does not hold true that the simple understand all that the wise do.
Mr. Müller seldom addressed his brethren in the ministry without giving more or less counsel as to the condition of church-life, giving plain witness against such hindrances as unconverted singers and choirs, secular methods of raising money, pew-rents and caste distinctions in the house of prayer, etc.; and urging such helps as inquire meetings, pastoral visits, and, above all else, believing prayer. He urged definite praying and importunate praying, and remarked that Satan will not mind how we labour in prayer for a few days, weeks, or even months, if he can at last discourage us so that we cease praying, as though it were of no use.
As to prayers for past seed-sowing he told the writer of this memoir how in all supplication to God he looked not only forward but backward. He was wont to ask that the Lord would be pleased to bless seed long since sown and yet apparently unfruitful; and he said that, in answer to these prayers, he had up to that day evidence of God leaving remembrance of his work of faith and labour love in years long gone by. He was permitted to know that messages delivered for God, tracts scattered, and other means of service had, after five, ten, twenty, and even sixty years, at last brought forth a harvest. Hence an urgency in advising fellow labourers to pray unceasing that God would work mightily in the hearts of those who had once been under their care, bringing to their remembrance the truth which had been set before them.
The humility Mr. Müller enjoined he practised. He was ever only the servant of the Lord. Mr. Spurgeon, in one of his sermons, describes the startling effect on London Bridge when he saw one lamp after another lit up with flame, though in the darkness he could not see the lamplighter; and George Müller set many a light burning when he was himself content to be unseen, unnoticed, and unknown. He honestly sought not his own glory, but had the meek and quiet spirit so becoming a minister of Jesus Christ.
Mr. Henry Craik's death in 1866, after thirty-four years of co-labour in the Lord, left Mr. Müller comparatively alone with a double burden of responsibility, but his faith was equal to the crisis and his peace remained unbroken. A beloved brother, then visiting Bristol, after crowded services conducted by him at Bethesda, was about leaving the city; and he asked Mr. Müller,
"What are you going to do, now that Mr. Craik is dead, to hold the people and prevent their scattering?"
"My beloved brother," was the calm reply, "we shall do what we have always done, look only to the Lord."
This God has been the perpetual helper. Mr. Müller almost totally withdrew from the work, during the seventeen years of his missionary tours, between 1875 and 1892, when he was in Bristol but a few weeks or months at a time, in the intervals between his long journeys and voyages. This left the assembly of believers still more dependent upon the great Shepherd and Bishop of of souls. But Bethesda has never, in a sense, been limited to any one or two men, as the only acknowledged leaders; from the time when those seven believers gathered about the Lord's table in 1832, the New Testament conception of the equality of believers in privilege and duty has been maintained. The one supreme Leader is the Holy Ghost, and under Him those whom He calls and qualifies.
One of the fundamental principles espoused by these brethren is that the Spirit of God controls in the assemblies of the saints; that He sets the members, every one of them, in the Body as it pleaseth Him, and divides unto them, severally as He will, gifts for service in the Body; that the only true ordination is His ordination, and that the manifestation of His gifts is the sufficient basis for the recognition of brethren qualified for the exercise of an office or function, the possession of spiritual gifts being sufficient authority for the exercise.
It is with the Body of Christ as with the human body: the eye is manifestly made for seeing and the ear for hearing, the hand and foot for handling and walking; and this adaptation both shows the design of God and their place in the organism. And so for more than threescore years the Holy Spirit has been safely trusted to supply and qualify all needed teachers, helpers, and leaders in the assembly. There has always been considerable number of brethren and sisters fitted and disposed to take up the various departments of service to which they were obviously called of the Spirit, so that no one person has been indispensable. Various brethren have been able to give more or less time and strength preaching, visiting, and ruling in the church; while scores of others, who, like Paul, Priscilla and Aquila, the tent makers, have their various business callings and seek therein to "abide with God," are ready to aid as the Lord may guide in such other forms of service as may consist with their ordinary vocations. The prosperity of the congregation, its growth, conduct, and edification, have therefore been dependent only on God, who, as He has withdrawn one worker after another, has supplied others in their stead, and so continues to do.
To have any adequate conception of the fruits of such teaching and such living in church-life, it is needful to go at least into one of the Monday-night prayer meetings at Bethesda. It is primitive and apostolic in simplicity. No one presides but the unseen Spirit of God. A hymn is suggested by some brother, and then requests for prayer are read, usually with definite mention of the names of those by and for whom supplication is asked. Then prayer, Scripture reading, singing, and exhortation follow, without any prearrangement as to subject, order in which or persons by whom, the exercises are participated in. The fullest liberty is encouraged to act under the Spirit's guidance; and the fact of such guidance is often strikingly apparent in the singular unity of prayer and song, scripture reading and remarks, as well as in the harmonious fellowship apparent. After more than half a century these Monday-night prayer services are still a hallowed centre of attraction, a rallying-point for supplication, and a radiating-point for service, and remain unchanged in the method of their conduct.
The original congregation has proved a tree whose seed is in itself after its kind. At the time of Mr. Müller's increase it was nearly sixty-six years since that memorable evening in 1832 when those seven believers met to form a church; and the original body of disciples meeting in Bethesda had increased to ten, six of which are now independent of the mother church, and four of which still remain in close affiliation and really constitute one church, though meeting in Bethesda, Alma Road, Stokes Croft, and Totterdown chapels. The names of the other churches which have been in a sense offshoots from Bethesda are as follows: Unity, Bishopston, Cumberland Hall, Charleton Hall, Nicholas Road, and Bedminster.
At the date of Mr. Müller's decease the total membership of the four affiliated congregations was upwards of twelve hundred.
In this brief compass no complete outline could be given of the church life and work so dear to him, and over which he so long watched and prayed. This church has been and is a missionary church. When on March 1, 1836, Mr. and Mrs. Groves, with ten helpers, left Bristol to carry on mission work in the East Indies, Mr. Müller felt deeply moved to pray that the body of disciples to whom he ministered might send out from their own members labourers for the wide world-field. That prayer was not forgotten before God, and has already been answered exceeding abundantly above all he then asked or thought. Since that time some sixty have gone forth to lands afar to labour in the gospel, and at the period of Mr. Müller's death there were at work, in various parts of the world at least twenty, who are aided by the free-will offerings of their Bristol brethren.
When, in 1874, Mr. Müller closed the third volume of his Narrative, he recorded the interesting fact that, the many nonconformist ministers of the gospel resident in Bristol when he took up work there more than forty-two years before, not one remained, all having been removed elsewhere or having died; and that, of all the evangelical clergy of the establishment, only one survived. Yet he himself, with very rare hindrance through illness, was permitted to preach and labour with health and vigor both of mind and body; over a thousand believers were already under his pastoral oversight, meeting in three different chapels, and over three thousand had been admitted into fellowship.
It was the writer's privilege to hear Mr. Müller preach on the morning of March 22, 1896, in Bethesda Chapel. He was in his ninety-first year, but there was a freshness, vigour, and terseness in his preaching that gave no indication of failing powers; in fact, he had never seemed more fitted to express and impress the thoughts of God.
His theme was the seventy-seventh psalm, and it afforded him abundant scope for his favourite subject-- prayer. He expounded the psalm verse by verse, clearly, sympathetically, effectively, and the outline of his treatment strongly engraved itself on my memory and is here reproduced.
"I cried unto God with my voice." Prayer seeks a voice-- to utter itself in words: the effort to clothe our desires in language gives definiteness to our desires and keeps the attention on the objects of prayer.
"In the day of my trouble." The Psalmist was in trouble; some distress was upon him, perhaps physical as well as mental, and it was an unceasing burden night and day.
"My soul refused to be comforted." The words, "my sore ran in the night," may be rendered, "my hand reached out"-- that is in prayer. But unbelief triumphed, and his soul refused all comfort even the comfort of God's promises. His trouble overshadowed his faith and shut out the vision of God.
"I remembered, or thought of God, and was troubled." Even the thought of God, instead of bringing peace, brought distress; instead of silencing his complaint, it increased it, and his spirit was overwhelmed-- the sure sign, again, of unbelief. If in trouble God's promises and the thought of God brings no relief, they will only become an additional burden.
"Thou holdest mine eyes waking." There was no sleep because there was no rest or peace. Care makes wakeful. Anxiety is the foe of repose. His spirit was unbelieving and therefore rebellious. He would not take God at His word.
"I have considered the days of old." Memory now is at work. He calls to remembrance former experiences of trouble and of deliverance. He had often sought God and been heard and helped, and why not now? As he made diligent search among the records of his experience and recollected all God's manifest and manifold inter-positions, he began to ask whether God could be fickle and capricious, whether His mercy was exhausted and His promise withdrawn, whether He had forgotten His covenant of grace, and shut up His fountains of love.
Thus we follow the Psalmist through six stages of unbelief:
1. The thought of God is a burden instead of a blessing.
2. The complaining spirit increases toward God.
3. His spirit is agitated instead of soothed and calmed.
4. Sleep departs, and anxiety forbids repose of heart.
5. Trouble only deepens and God seems far off.
6. Memory recalls God's mercies, but only to awaken distrust.
At last we reach the turning-point in the psalm:
he asks as he reviews former experiences, WHERE IS THE DIFFERENCE? IS THE CHANGE IN GOD OR IN ME? "Selah"-- the pause marks this turning-point in the argument or experience.
"And I said, This is my infirmity." In other words, "I HAVE BEEN A FOOL!" God is faithful. He never casts off. His children are always dear to Him. His grace is exhaustless and His promise unfailing. Instead of fixing his eyes on his trouble he now fixes his whole mind on God. He remembers His work, and meditates upon it; instead of rehearsing his own trials, he talks of His doings. He gets overwhelmed now, not with the greatness of his trouble but the greatness of his Helper. He recalls His miracles of power and love, and remembers the mystery of His mighty deeds-- His way in the sea, His strange dealings and leadings and their gracious results-- and so faith once more triumphs.
What is the conclusion, the practical lesson?
Unbelief is folly. It charges God foolishly. Man's are the weakness and failure, but never God's. My faith may be lacking but not His power. Memory and meditation, when rightly directed, correct unbelief. God has shown Himself great. He has always done wonders. He led even an unbelieving and murmuring people out of Egypt and for forty years through the wilderness, and His miracles of power and love were marvellous.
The psalm contains a great lesson. Affliction is inevitable. But our business is never to lose sight of the Father who will not leave His children. We are to roll all burdens on Him and wait patiently, and deliverance is sure. Behind the curtain He carries on His plan of love, never forgetting us, always caring for His own. His ways of dealing we cannot trace, for His footsteps are in the trackless sea, and unknown to us. But HE IS SURELY LEADING, and CONSTANTLY LOVING. Let us not be fools, but pray in faith to a faithful God.
This is the substance of that morning exposition, and is given very inadequately, it is true, yet it serves not only to illustrate Mr. Müller's mode of expounding and applying the Word, but the exposition of this psalm is a sort of exponent also of his life. It reveals his habits of prayer, the conflicts with unbelief, and how out of temptations to distrust God he found deliverance; and thus is doubly valuable to us as an experimental commentary upon the life-history we are studying.
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