Christian Meetings, for Prayer and
Conference to mutual edification,
and to the right management of the
By Walter Smith
THAT it is the duty of private Christians to meet together for their mutual edification, by prayer and conference, may be evinced by these following Scriptures, among others that might be named, viz. 1 Thess. 5.11; Colos. 3.16; Heb. 10.24,25; and from the laudable and much commended practice of the people of God in all ages, both under the Old and New Testament, as it is Mal. 3.16. This seems to have been the practice of the Lord's people under their captivity at Babylon, Psalm 137. For to what other purpose went they out and sat by the rivers of Babel, but to remember Zion, both in their prayers to God, and in their communication? And so likewise frequently in the Acts of the Apostles, we find it practised by the primitive Christians: and it is beyond all question that the right performance of this duty has been attended by singular advantage, both to the publick work of God and to persons' own private condition, who, to their comfortable experience, have found many blessed fruits and effects following upon their conscientious performance of this duty. Yea further, it hath been frequently observed that, in such places within the churches of Scotland where this duty is most practised, there true and serious religion does most thrive, and the professors thereof are ordinarily the most useful members both in Church and Commonwealth: so that the willful neglect of this duty is no small sin; especially considering that such a neglect tends very much to discourage these who are endeavouring to make conscience of performing this duty. And therefore it is greatly to be wished that both ministers and experienced Christians, where they live, were more active in exciting and stirring up themselves and others to a more diligent and constant practice of so warrantable and useful a duty; especially in such a day of tentation, in which the Lord, by his holy and wise providence, is giving his people very loud calls to seriousness, and diligence in all commanded duties.
Now, that such private meetings for prayer and conference may be so managed, as the same may tend to the glory of God, the advancement of religion, and the mutual edification of the members thereof, which is the chief if not the only end of these meetings, these few particulars may be observed.
1. This being a private duty, and mutual among private Christians, it is convenient, and for preventing of confusion and disorder, there be few more than ten or twelve in a society.
2. When any society increaseth much above ten or twelve, it is fit they divide themselves in two: tho' they should be few in each society at the first, and, when the division is needful, let it be with consent of the whole; and, for preventing of any difference about the choice of persons, let two of the present number be nominate by the whole, and let these two in presence of the meeting choose each of them one, time about, until they have made up two equal meetings of the whole, and then let them part. (It is still to be remembred and considered, when these rules were composed, the Lord's people got not orderly met for the murdering enemies, some of them [were] taken by the way, and meetings taken when together in the night-time, whom I knew suffered hard things among their hands; yea, some taken praying in families, who suffered unto death.) Their living near together, or at great distance from other, is also to be considered to determine what number is expedient to be in each meeting.
3. These who are already in practice of this duty should take all prudent methods in dealing with others, who may be fit for this duty, to join with societies already erected, or to set up new meetings where they may be had; and if, where societies are newly erected, none of the members thereof were formerly in any society, it is fit that the neighbouring society send some of their members for some time to meet with them, till they have some experience in the duty.
4. That none be invited, or upon his own desire brought, into any society, but by the advice and consent of all the society; and that he be particularly known, at least to some of the members, that he is one who makes conscience of secret prayer, and of prayer in his family (if he hath any), and that he is of an exemplary and blameless conversation, and free of all scandal: but before he be brought into the society, let his name be proposed in the meeting; and, if all consent, he may be admitted a member at the next meeting of the society: but, if any objection be made, it is fit his admission be delayed till it be further cleared, if it be a matter not known to all.
5. If one society or more desire to set apart a day (beside their ordinary) for humiliation and prayer, upon some singular occasion, let it be done by grave deliberation, and by correspondence if among more societies, that they may all consider upon the occasion and necessity, that so it may be done with joint consent; but, still let all be done in a private way, they being only private Christians that design it; and therefore, they are not to impose it upon any but themselves; except where it may be that two societies are so small, that they think it convenient to join together for that day: and altho' private persons have not power to appoint a day to the people for publick humiliation or thanksgiving, this belonging properly to ministers, yet, if at any time a motion be made among societies of the necessity of keeping such a day, they may make application to their ministers, and propose their motion and reasons to them: but the ministers are to judge whether it be seasonable, and to appoint a day if they find it convenient, and what reasons they find needful; otherways the people are not to take upon them to fix a day, or define the causes of a fast or thanksgiving in publick.
6. In all their debates, reasonings and actings, one with another, let them still carry suitably to their stations, in a private brotherly way, and let nothing be done that looks like a partial way of exercising discipline.
7. At every diet of meeting (which may be once every week for ordinary) the time they design to stay together (which may be four hours at least, if their conveniency can possibly allow) should be seriously and closely spent about the work for which they meet, which is prayer and spiritual conference: and for this end,
8. Let them beware of being diverted from their present work, by talking about their worldly affairs or the publick news, until they close, except something fall for the informing the meeting, the account whereof may be useful for exciting to prayer and thanksgiving; and the time set apart for this exercise, being devoted to the Lord and their own soul's edification, should be no otherwise employed.
9. That every one carefully shun being tedious, either in prayer or conference, that the work be not made burdensom to any; for we should consider one another's infirmities.
10. Let all undervaluing, or the least appearance of slighting, be carefully avoided, Phil. 2.3. For a person may be weak in knowledge and other parts, and yet greater in sincerity and singleness of heart, which is most acceptable to God. Particularly, let all beware of disdainful slighting any answer given to a question, tho' it may be weak, and not so closs to the purpose: but let the more judicious and expert make the best use of it they can, for the person's and the rest's edification.
11. That the conference may be the more edifying, in the interval between prayer there may a question be proposed, and, for order's sake, it is usual that he who prayed last propose the question, which is to be briefly answered. But, if either he be not so fit or have not any thing for the time, another may do it; and if nothing occur to any, or if differences arise about the answers given to the question proposed, then let them forbear at that time, and go to prayer again, which is their main business in these private meetings.
12. In proposing questions for conference, let these things following be observed:(1) Let nothing be moved which tends only to satisfy curiosity. (2) Let no question be proposed anent any sublime point of divinity, in which there are great difficulties, such as the decrees of God, predestination, election. And, (3) That they be very sparing in proposing questions anent the sense and interpretation of Scriptures, especially these places which are more hard and difficult, 2 Pet. 3.16. And, it belonging properly to ministers to open up or explain the Scriptures ministerially, no private Christian should presume to do it, Heb. 5.4; seeing Christ hath set in his church pastors and doctors, as a distinct office for interpreting and applying Scripture to the people's edification; and the meddling with this by private Christians has proven of fatal and dangerous consequences, towards the bringing in of error, contention and division into the Church of Christ, as the lamentable case of the Church of England, not many years ago, did clearly evidence. Yet it may tend to the promoting of knowledge, that every member impart any light he hath gotten, either by reading, hearing, or any other way, for the mutual good and edification of the rest by way of conference; yet so as still to beware of meddling with obscure places of Scripture, as is already directed. (4) They are to beware to propose any subject for conference anent things controverted among godly ministers and professors. And, lastly, let nothing be proposed that may occasion needless animosities, contentions and debates, which tend to the marring of love and edification; but let such questions as are proposed be only anent practical cases, and about the ordering the conversation, so as the same may be holy and inoffensive, and whatever may most tend to the stirring up of the grace of God, exercise for mortifying of corruptions, and preserving themselves and others from snares and temptations.
13. If contention or debates be like to arise, anent any subject they confer about, it is dangerous to insist; but it is the best godly prudence to break off abruptly, and go to prayer again.
14. That when any member of a society is overtaken in a fault, and it was scandalous; and if it be notour to all, he is to be applied to by any of the rest, who know the offence best and are most intimate with him, and shall sharply be reproved, suitably to the offence given: yet still observing that good rule given, Gal. 6.1, 'If any man be overtaken in a fault, ye who are spiritual restore him in the spirit of meekness.' But, lest his being allowed to continue in the meeting should be constructed a connivance with his scandal, he is to be soberly advised by one sent from the rest to forbear frequenting of their meeting for some time, till at least he be cleared and the scandal removed.
15. If any difference fall betwixt any members of the society, let some of the most prudent and judicious be appointed to deal betwixt them, in order to a reconciliation in private. But, if they prove unsuccessful in that attempt and cannot prevail, then let the matter be brought before the meeting and there soberly and calmly reasoned. And if he, who shall be judged by all the rest to be in the wrong, will not comply with what is agreed unto by the meeting, he is to be desired to forbear frequenting their meeting, till some other course be taken, in order to the removing of the difference.
16. That altho' every one is to keep within his station, and not to meddle with that which is the proper work of ministers or magistrates; yet it is the duty of every member to be valiant for the Lord, especially now, in a time when Satan and his instruments are so bold in supporting the kingdom of darkness, and they are, as they have occasion, faithfully, yet meekly, to reprove sin and faults in all, both small and great (as far as it is consistent with Christian prudence). And if their reproof have no effect towards the reforming the offender, then they are to endeavour the suppressing of immorality in a legal way, by applying to those that are in authority, by getting the laws, whether ecclesiastick or civil, put in execution against those that are obstinate and contumacious, without any respect of persons herein.
17. And because it is expected that those who profess more than others should do more than others, therefore it is the unquestionable duty of every member of such societies, as they would not throw down with the one hand what they endeavour to build with the other, to study in all places and cases, and on all occasions, to have their conversations suitable to the gospel and agreeable to their profession, that they may thereby recommend the way of God to such with whom they converse, and discourage and disgrace profaneness and vice; and particularly, let them guard against idle discourse, Colos. 4.6, which is very stumbling and hardning to the wicked, and tends very much to the eating out of the life of religion. And, when any member is reproved seasonably by another, for any fault he may be guilty of, it is certainly his duty to take the reproof kindly off his brother's hand, according to the practice of the Psalmist, Psalm 141.5, 'Let the righteous smite me,' etc.
18. Altho' such meetings cannot be hid, yet every member should labour to wait upon them in such a way as may be most free of ostentation as is possible, that there may be no just ground for any to say we perform these duties to be seen of men; especially considering the bad temper of wicked and carnal men, who look upon all the performances and actions of the people of God, for God and his interest, to be nothing but acts of hypocrisy.
19. That all who join in such societies beware of divulging or discovering any thing said or done in the society, to the offence or prejudice of any member of the society, and that none be admitted as members with whom they dare not or cannot freely converse; and they being all members of the same mystical body, therefore they ought kindly to sympathize one with another, Eph. 4.12; Rom. 12.15,16.
20. Let every meeting be begun and closed by singing a verse or more of a Psalm, if the place be convenient, and, at every meeting, let as many pray as conveniently can, and let every one take his turn in prayer without refusing, except there be an urgent reason, which he is to satisfy the meeting about.
21. Every member ought to make conscience of attending all the diets of the society, and the hour of meeting as precisely as possible, otherwise they may discourage the rest and occasion the dissolving of the meeting, as sad experience has too often evidenced.
22. If any come not at the hour, miss a day or more, or stay away all the time of the meeting, they are to satisfy the rest of the reason thereof, as it may appear to all, that it is not a wilful neglect or slighting the duty: but if any be found wilfully to neglect, they are to be spoken to by some sent from the meeting, who are most intimate with them; and, if they will not amend or return after several admonitions, let them desist. Neither are they afterwards, even upon their own desire, to be admitted to join, till they give evidences that they are heartily sorry for the offence they have given by their wilful neglect. To which is added the two following:
23. As it is the undoubted duty of all to pray for the coming of Christ's kingdom, so all that love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity, and know what it is to bow a knee in good earnest, will long and pray for the out-making of the gospel-promises to his Church in the latter days, that King Christ would go out upon the white horse of the gospel, conquering and to conquer, and make a conquest of the travail of his soul, that it may be sounded that the kingdoms of the world are become his, and his name called upon from the rising of the sun to its going down. (1) That the old offcasten Israel for unbelief would never be forgotten, especially in these meetings, that the promised day of their ingrafting again by faith may be hastned; and that dead weight of blood removed off them, that their fathers took upon them and upon their children, that have sunk them down to hell upwards of seventeen hundred years. (2) That the Lord's written and preached word [may be sent] with power, to enlighten the poor Pagan world, living in black perishing darkness without Christ and the knowledge of his name. (3) That the damnable delusions of Mahomet, and errors of Antichrist, Arian, Arminian, Socinian and Quakers, may be discovered; that the blind may no more lead the blind, and go to hell wholesale, living and dying so; and the many gross errors abounding among many other sectaries may come to light. (4) [That] where the light of his written and preached word is, many may be enlightned thereby, especially in Scotland where they are members; and mourn and lament that there is so much of the world perishing without the gospel, and innumerable multitudes perishing under the gospel. Gospel-vengeance is manifold vengeance.
24. But more especially, they would love, sympathize, and pray for one another in secret, and in their families who have them, and weep when any member weeps, and rejoice with all such as are joined in this society-communion, which is the strictest of all communions; and, before they go to their meetings, every one would be importunate with the Lord to go with them and meet with them, that it may be for the better and not for the worse, and with all such meetings. And when at any time the Lord in his sovereignty, who manifests himself to whom he will, when, where, and as he will, is pleased to hide and withhold the influences of his Good Spirit, so as that there is a darkness in their minds, and deadness upon their spirits, that the duty of prayer and conference is unrefreshful and unsavoury to them; let every one make earnest in searching to find out the causes; be humble and mourn, long and pray for his return: and when at other times the Lord is pleased to manifest himself to give them light, life and liberty, to pour out their hearts before him, and the duties of prayer and conference are refreshful and reviving to them, and they feel any thing of the gladness of heart that the disciples had when they saw the Lord; then let them be humble, and express their great thankfulness, and bless his gracious name for the same, and pray for the continuance of it, and still to steer a steady course at all times, places, cases and company, abounding in all the duties of Christianity, that all may take notice that they have been with Jesus.
Lastly, let all the foregoing rules be carefully observed and practised by all concerned.