A Treatise on the Eldership
J. W. McGarvey  (1870)


      We have not as much information in the Scriptures upon the primitive mode of conducting the public services of the church, as we might expect to find. Still, we have some, and it becomes us to make the most careful use of it and learn from it all we can.

      In the fourteenth chapter of First Corinthians, Paul gives the church directions upon this subject, and concludes by remarking that "God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all the congregations of the saints." Verse 33. This remark, in the connection which is sustains, requires the supposition that the same mode of avoiding confusion and securing peace which he had just prescribed for the Corinthians, was the mode established in all the congregations. This conclusion is confirmed by the [48] consideration, that the apostle could not be supposed to establish, in different congregations, methods in any great degree different from each other.

      After having stated the threefold object of prophesying, that it contemplates edification, exhortation and comfort; and having pointed out the impropriety of speaking in tongues unless an interpreter were present, the apostle proceeds as follows: "How is it, then, brethren? When you come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done to edifying." The expression "every one" in not to be taken strictly; for it is not true that every member had each one of the exercises enumerated; but the apostle means that they have these among them; some one; some another. Singing, then, in which some were specially gifted; teaching, in which others excelled, and which is here used as the equivalent of prophesying; speaking in tongues which belonged to still another class; and interpreting tongues, which belonged to still another, constituted the exercises under consideration. Having thus stated the different exercises, the apostle drops the subject of singing, and proceeds to give the proper mode of conducting the public speaking both by tongues and by prophesying. He says, "If any man speak in a tongue, let it be by two, or at most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret. But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church." The meaning of the expression "by two or at most by three," is, that two or at most three persons shall speak at one meeting. So say the commentators, and so the context requires us to understand the expression. Two or at most three brethren, then, possessed of [49] the gift of tongues, might speak at one meeting, provided an interpreter were present; otherwise, they were forbidden to speak at all in the assembly of the saints.

      Advancing, now to the other class of speakers, he gives the same direction as to number; saying, "Let the prophets speak, two or three, and let the others judge. If anything be revealed to another who sits by, let the first hold his peace; for you may all prophesy, one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted."

      From this it appears, that, as in the case of the tongues, only two or three prophets were to speak at a single meeting and that no one was to occupy the time to the exclusion of another who wished to speak. While one was speaking, and had occupied sufficient time, the Spirit would move another to speak, and upon his making this known, the first must hold his peace. It appears, also, that liberty to speak in rotation was extended to all those who possessed the prophetic gift. The expression, "you may all prophesy, one by one," means, not all the members, but all the prophets; for only a part of the members possessed the gift of prophecy. The judging mentioned is doubtless that by which the prophets, who were listening, decided as to the reality of the inspiration claimed by him who was speaking.

      From these directions, we determine the order of exercises in the primitive churches as follows: When brethren were present who could speak in tongues, two or three of them would speak, each following by his interpreter; and after or before these, or perhaps intermingled with these, two or [50] three prophets would speak, thus making from four to six speeches at one meeting. Singing was also introduced in such amount and at such time as would best promote edification, and the Lord's supper, together with suitable prayers, found an appropriate place amid other exercises. We need not pause to furnish the intelligent reader with proof as to the services last mentioned.

      So great a variety of exercises at a single meeting imposes the alternative of protracting the meeting to great length, or of greatly abbreviating each exercise. But long continued meetings have never, in any age, been found profitable, and therefore, the strong probability is that the individual exercises were very brief. If each one of the six speeches occupied ten minutes, and the various services connected with the Lord's supper half an hour, these, together with singing and prayers, would doubtless protract the entire services to two hours, as much time probably, as they usually occupied.

      In the primitive churches, very generally, if not universally, the teachers possessed some spiritual lift imparted by imposition of apostolic hands. It is for this reason that the directions which we have on record are given with reference to the exercise of such gifts. But when these gifts passed away, here is no doubt that the order of exercises instituted for the inspired was perpetuated by the uninspired teachers. The former would naturally be the mode, for the latter; and the latter would argue at if it were necessary for inspired teachers to follow the directions of the apostle, much more would be necessary for the uninspired to do the same. A perpetuation of this mode of conducting the [51] worship, was, therefore, a necessity, so long as men continued to be governed by apostolic precedents.

      Although the above was the order prevalent in the primitive churches, we have evidence that it was sometimes interrupted. When Paul met with the brethren at Troas, he occupied the whole time of their meeting with his long speech and subsequent conversation. This shows that when opportunity occurred for greater instruction or edification than the ordinary exercises afforded, the rule of doing the greatest good to the greatest number prevailed, and this might justify the appropriation of the most favorable hour in the week to the labors of an evangelist.

      The wisdom of this apostolic method of imparting public instruction to the disciples, is attested by the experiences of the present time. It is almost universally conceded by those who have opportunity to judge, that well conducted prayer meetings, in which brief alternate songs, prayers and exhortations fill up the time, are more edifying than most meetings for preaching; and when a large number of preachers are convened on some great occasion, it is found that meetings for social exercises of this character are more devotional than those in which the most eloquent speakers occupy the entire hour. Why, then, should not the churches, under the guidance of their Elders, depend more upon such meetings, and less upon preaching? That they do not, is a manifest departure from apostolic precedents, and like all departures from the original standard, it brings forth evil fruit. Churches which can not be supplied with preaching, are languishing and dying, when, by this method, they might be full of life [52] and power. Churches are far more numerous than men who can speak an hour to edification, and they will always be so in a religious body which is rapidly increasing. If you try to check this disparity by ceasing to multiply churches, the zeal of the body will die, and it will cease to multiply preachers also. Our only alternative, therefore, is to return to primitive practice. Let the Elders, in the absence of the evangelist, assemble the congregation every Lord's day, and instead of allowing one or two to occupy the time, call forth from four to six with other established exercises of the Lord's house. There are many other considerations in favor of this method, but I will not pause to enumerate them.

[ATOTE 48-53]

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