Ministry in Troubling Times
Here's a question for those of you who are teaching elders and pastors:—how long would your congregations exist without your presence, or any pastor-teacher's presence over them in the Lord? In other words, suppose your congregation did not have a pastor for an extended period of time? And further, there were no supply pastors available to minister the Word and Sacrament to them. Question? Would they persevere in the faith as an organized body of believers?
Such was the case in Scotland in the late 17th century. Presbyterianism as a whole in 1690 had been restored to Scotland by what is known as the Revolution Settlement. Covenanters however were disappointed by this settlement as it ignored early covenants made by the people. It further gave the civil government some authority over the church. And to make matters worse for the Covenanters, they were without an ordained minister at this time. Some 16 years later, the Rev. John MacMillan left the Church of Scotland to minister to their spiritual needs. But in hindsight, that was sixteen years down the proverbial pike. Sixteen years without a pastor! It took a degree of faith to stand together for the faith, by faith. And faith they did indeed possess, as evidenced by their organizing themselves in what is known as the Society People of Scotland.
These groups, according to A.S. Horne in his small booklet "Torchbearers of the Truth," were not large in number, often being between ten and twelve individuals. If they grew beyond this, then they were required to split into two groups. They knew that the times were against them, as the principles of the Reformation had been largely swept aside and abandoned by the nation. Spiritual declension marked their times. Scrupulous care had to be exercised as to new members in their society.
Listen to one rule of entrance into a society, according to Horne. "None are to be invited, or upon his own desire brought into any Society" wrote author Horne, "but by the advice and consent of all the Society; and that he is 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 and he is of exemplary and blameless conversation and free from all scandal."
Further, their meetings were quite obviously for the professing, committed Christian. A full meeting was "four hours at least should be seriously and closely spent about the work for which they meet, which is prayer and spiritual conference." In addition, they "are not to be diverted from their work by talking about their worldly affairs or public news until they close, except something for the informing of the meeting whereof may be useful." It is clear that the primary purpose of the Society meetings were for spiritual edification.
There were other rules too, but space hinders their inclusion in this post. Some 7000 Scottish Covenanters regularly met together in this way throughout Central and Southern Scotland. Finally, a general meeting was held, with representatives from as many of the societies as could attend. The first of these general meetings was held on December 15, 1681 in Lanarkshire, Scotland. In all, some forty-one general meetings were held during this twenty years of persecution, "and never in one instance did informers succeed in getting information of them in time to prevent them, or capture those who attended them."
Words to Live By:
This author can still remember during his years as a pastor-teacher, a church member who came to the door after the sermon, to urge him to end his sermon on time as she and her husband wanted to be able to get the best seat in their local restaurant for their noon lunch! Contrast that remark with the Covenanters who, in the prelude to the Killing Times in Scotland, gathered together for hours in prayer and spiritual conversation so as to be made strong and valiant for the Lord.