Wednesday, August 02, 2017

"Communion with the 'Sects'": An Answer from George W. Elley

In August 1861, Edmund Ruffin, a Virginia planter and slave owner, wrote: "The excitement of the war, and interest in its incidents, have absorbed everything else." That very same week, Massachusetts Yankee Ralph Waldo Emerson repeated Ruffin's sentiment: "The war . . . has assumed such huge proportions that it threatens to engulf us all--no preoccupation can exclude it, and no hermitage hide us." [1]

But one would hardly guess America's preoccupation with the conflict by reading The Millennial Harbinger of the time. In its pages, writers committed to what Alexander Campbell called "the present reformation" diverted much of their attention away from the war by discussing those things they were convinced would outlast it. [2]

The previous post here at Frankly Speaking surveyed the position of Restoration leaders Isaac Errett, Robert Richardson, and W. K. Pendleton (pictured here) on the topic of "Communing with the 'Sects'." Again, their remarks were occasioned by a question about "open" versus "close" communion. Their responses appeared in the December 1861 issue of The Millennial Harbinger.

It did not take long for a few other writers to take issue with some of what had been published in the Harbinger. One of the first, whose thought is the subject of this post, was George W. Elley. His response to Errett, Richardson, and Pendleton appeared in the issued dated January 1862.

Elley began by suggesting that the position and the practice recommended by the earlier three writers amounted to "open" communion. Was not such a practice, asked Elley, "fully within the meaning of the 'open communion' of the sects, in its worst form?" Furthermore, does this not break down "all of the landmarks separating Christ's from human kingdoms?"

Regarding 1 Corinthians 11:28--"But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup"--Elley pointed out that this directive was "addressed to the church of God at Corinth, and of course applicable only to the citizens of Christ's kingdom." Paul was writing to Christians, not to everyone who might attend a worship assembly.

But what of the objection that "it is the Lord's table, and not ours"? Elley retorted, in that case, since it is the Lord's table, "what right have we to control it outside of his directions?" Has the Lord not sufficiently taught us who should and should not partake? The church should remember that the Lord has left it to the people of God to serve as stewards of his intentions, executors of his will. Because the Lord's Supper is eaten at the table of the Lord, wrote Elley, "I can only furnish bread and wine to those whom he invites. I have no discretion in the matter." And who has been invited to the Supper of the Lord? Only those who have been "born of water and of the Spirit." Consequently, fellowship and communion should be extended to "all such as are entitled to membership in the house of God, and to none others." This is not a matter of opinion or feelings. It is, instead, a matter of keeping "the law of Christ."

Someone else might object that "we are not to judge others." But, responded Elley, the command not to the judge simply cannot mean "Make no judgments." Otherwise, the church would not be able to follow the command to "mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned" (Romans 16:17).

Furthermore, Elley denied that the attitude and practice described by Isaac Errett, one according to which the church opens wide "the gate which leads to the altar of Christ's table" was common among Stone-Campbell congregations. "Such may be the his [Errett's] practice, but such is not the common practice of the churches."

Elley concluded with a succinct statement of his position. The church is made up of people who have been "born again." To be born again means to have been immersed in water as a consequence of faith and repentance. Only those who have obeyed in this way are "citizens of Christ's kingdom" and are therefore "lawfully entitled to the ordinances of God's house." If someone has become a Christian but still belongs to a Protestant sect, whenever that person takes the Lord's Supper with us it is not because the church practices "open communion." Rather, this is an example of "communion with that class of God's children who are improperly associated." Whenever the church refuses the bread and wine to unimmersed people, the church is acting "consistently with all our pleadings." Why would the church be "closed" in regard to baptism, but "opened" when it comes to the Lord's Supper? "Where is the consistency in this act? I am unable to see it." Elley's concluding paragraph reads:
When we have clearly stated the law of Christ upon the subject of the right and duty of God's people to the bread and wine, and then some should come who are not included, the responsibility must rest with them, and not with us; but if we allow 'all to come,' then it is with us. If I am wrong, I shall be thankful for correction.
In a brief follow-up titled "Remarks," W. K. Pendleton, co-editor of the Harbinger and one of the three writers challenged by Elley, gave notice to his readers that "Bro. Elley's article came too late" to include a reply. Besides, Pendleton would not have had room to publish both. With that explanation, Pendleton promised "the reply in our next," and called on either Richardson or Errett, or both, to write that reply. [3]


[1] James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), viii.

[2] Of course, writers in The Millennial Harbinger referred to the war on occasion. Still, it is remarkable that no more than just a few references appear in the issues published in 1862.

[3] Elley's article, titled "Communion with the 'Sects.' " and W. K. Pendleton's brief "Remarks" appear in The Millennial Harbinger for January 1862, pp. 39-42.

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