AN INDICTMENT OF THE TRADITIONAL CHURCH
by Bob Wheeler
The New Testament Order for Church and Missionary
Alexander Rattray Hay
New Testament Missionary Union, 1947 (1st Ed.)
531 pp; pb.
That the modern church is in spiritual trouble is hard to deny. Aging congregations, dwindling attendance and shrinking budgets are just some of the problems plaguing the more traditional churches. When we look deeper we see problems even more alarming. Many church services are marked by lethargic singing and dull, lifeless sermons. Attendance at Sunday evening and midweek services is pitifully low. And just about the only churches experiencing numerical growth are doing so at the expense of other churches. We see few genuine new conversions. What has gone wrong?
From an obscure early 20th Century author comes a startling answer. There is something fundamentally wrong with the way the modern church is organized, argues Alexander Rattray Hay, who was for many years a missionary to South America. According to him, we have concentrated the work of ministry in the hands of paid professionals, and thereby have stifled most of the spiritual gifts in the church. The New Testament, however, knows nothing of a clergy / laity distinction. Ministry was supposed to be everyone’s responsibility.
It is hard to argue with Hay’s central thesis. Success in the ministry depends upon the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. But the Spirit’s activity is manifested through spiritual gifts distributed throughout the entire body. Moreover, the leaders of the local church should be chosen from within the congregation based on the demonstrated spiritual maturity and gifts. But when we bring in from the outside an academically trained paid professional, the rest of the congregation naturally defers to him. This stifles the spiritual gifts in the rest of the body. What is even worse, sometime the professional clergyman himself is ill-equipped to exercise spiritual leadership in the church. The church will rarely advance beyond the level of the spiritual maturity of its pastor. What we have done, in effect, is to replace the work of the Holy Spirit with human organization, and we are suffering the consequences.
Hay argues repeatedly that the church, and the individual Christians who make it up, should be actively seeking the will of God in all things. This, he says, is done through prayer. The church should keep praying about a matter until the Holy Spirit reveals the mind of God concerning it. This will be known when the congregation reaches a near unanimous consensus in the matter, for the Spirit will not lead different individuals in different directions at the same time.
Hay also makes some trenchant criticisms of seminaries and Bible schools. He notes that it is not enough to have a merely theoretical knowledge of the truth. It must be experienced as a living reality as well. Those who teach must do so by example, and the student has not really mastered the lesson until he can put it into practice himself. Jesus did not train His disciples in an academic institution; neither should we.
Hay’s book is not entirely without its flaws. Hay was essentially a restorationist, making a passionate appeal to return to the New Testament pattern of church life. But sometimes it is difficult to know what parts of the New Testament are prescriptive and which parts are merely descriptive. How far are we actually required to go to conform to the New Testament model? Howe much freedom do we have to adapt to individual circumstances?
At some points Hay appears to be reading a little more into the New Testament than is actually there. For example he interprets the gift of evangelist mentioned in Eph. 4:11 to refer to those who are engaged in itinerant church planting ministries, i.e., missionaries; and then goes on to argue that under certain circumstances they have the authority to return to churches they have planted to set things straight when they have gone awry.
And then there is the problem that has plagued restorationist movements in the past: how to promote the unity of the church when you are arguing that nearly everyone else is doing things all wrong. Hay appears to be saying that if everyone were doing things the right way they would be united. But different denominations exist precisely because they think they are doing things the right way. And the more they contend for a pure church order the less likely they are to unite with others. But on the other hand should unity be purchased at the price of indifference to biblical precept?
In spite of these relatively minor flaws, we feel that Hay was a veritable prophet ahead of his time. As traditional churches continue to fail and the surrounding culture becomes increasingly hostile to orthodox Christian belief, the time will come, perhaps in the not too distant future, when Christians will be forced to decide where their true loyalties lie. And increasingly those who wish to remain faithful to Christ will turn to small, informal house churches, which (wonder of wonders!) will begin to function the same way the persecuted church of the First Century did. In so doing they will have to rethink what Christ really expects from a church. And Hay has already done much of the homework for us!