One grave practical lack which Mr. Müller sought to remedy was ignorance of those deeper truths of the Word which relate to the power and presence of the Holy Spirit of God in the church, and to the ministry of saints, one to another, as fellow members in the body of Christ, and as those to whom that same Spirit divides severally, as he will, spiritual gifts for service. As a natural result of being untaught in these important practical matters, believers’ meetings had proved rather opportunities for unprofitable talk than godly edifying which is in faith. The only hope of meeting such errors and supplying such lack lay in faithful Scripture teaching, and he undertook for a time to act as the sole teacher in these gatherings, that the Word of God might have free course and be glorified. Afterward, when there seemed to be among the brethren proper apprehension of vital spiritual truths,...he resumed his place as simply a brother among fellow believers, all of whom had liberty to teach as the Spirit might lead and guide.
…With strong emphasis he dwelt upon the presiding presence of the Blessed Spirit in all assemblies of saints, and upon the duty and privilege of leaving the whole conduct of such assemblies to His divine ordering; and in perfect accord with such teaching he showed that the Holy Spirit, if left free to administer all things, would lead such brethren to speak at such times and on such themes as He might please; and that, whenever their desires and preferences were spiritual and not carnal, such choice, of the Spirit would always be in harmony with their own.
These views of the Spirit’s administration in the assemblies of believers, and of his manifestation in all believers for common profit, fully accord with Scripture teaching (I Cor. 12; Rom. 12; Eph. 4; etc.).Were such views practically held in the church today, a radical revolution would be wrought and a revival of apostolic faith and primitive church life would inevitably follow. No one subject is perhaps more misunderstood, or less understood, even among professed believers, than the person, offices, and functions of the Spirit of God. John Owen, long since, suggested that the practical test of soundness in the faith, during the present gospel age, is the attitude of the church toward the Holy Spirit. If so, the great apostasy cannot be far off, if indeed it is not already upon us, for there is shameful ignorance and indifference prevalent as to the whole matter of his claim to holy reverence and obedience.
The overriding principle of meeting in George Müller and Henry Craik's church was the sovereignty of the Spirit.
From this principle, liberty of ministry of the brethren, subject to New Testament limitations, necessarily and unavoidably follows.
The New Testament limitations on liberty of ministry are, first, that unsound doctrine is not of the Spirit and is to be immediately remedied in the church meeting. Teaching that is of the Spirit is without fail sound. In order to test the teaching, and whether it be of God, the supremacy of the inspired Word is always assumed. We must, like the Bereans, measure the teaching against the written Word of God.
Second, liberty of ministry requires order. One man speaks, then another, as was the example given in I Corinthians 14. Disorderly ministry in the church is not of the Spirit. Rather, disorderly ministry in the church is proof that the Spirit is not at work.
Third, the sovereignty of the Spirit which requires liberty of ministry rather than a planned meeting (not always, but normally or regularly or typically) necessitates elder leadership or rule. There is no one man doing the ministering week after week subject to his own rule, but the brethren minister regularly subject to elder rule.
Let us look at the relation between the three aspects of the Spirit's sovereignty.
First, sovereignty of the Spirit without liberty of ministry is meaningless. If men plan every meeting, all the time, Sunday after Sunday, then sovereignty of the Spirit is not actually believed, it is mere theory. I do not say planned meetings are always prohibited. I do not say the Spirit cannot work through planned meetings. The question is, what is the regular practice in the churches? When a teacher has a lengthy teaching he should be granted audience. This, however, is not the Ephesians 4:12 "work of the ministry" which is to characterize the churches on the Lord's day. It is not the mutual ministry of the saints found in Romans 12:3-8. It is not the meeting we find modeled in I Corinthians 14.
Second, liberty of ministry without elder leadership is anarchy. It is inherently disorderly, both in doctrine and in form. Churches that have featured liberty of ministry without elder leadership have always become heretical and/or sectarian (the two are of course closely related).
Third, elder rule without liberty of ministry is authoritarian and oppressive. It may indeed be a benevolent oppression. Many in the churches are quite happy with this kind of church polity, albeit in the form of the professional pastorate rather than New Testament eldership. Be that as it may, this kind of rule, whether by a plurality of elders or simply one man, is oppressive to any man desiring to obey the Lord's command to exercise his ministry. Romans 12 says if a man's gift is exhorting, then he should exhort; if it is prophesying, then he should prophesy; etc.
Thus the unavoidable conclusion is that sovereignty of the Spirit in the churches requires both elder rule and liberty of ministry among the brethren.
However, in a climate of apostasy, this kind of church polity seems anarchical, highly unsettling, and even outrageous to most Christians and their leaders.
It reminds me of the words of Jesus, "Nevertheless when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?" Luke 18:8. Come, Lord Jesus!