publisher's preface to "The Christian Ministry According to the Apostles" (1858)
No single question has so rent the church as that of ministry.
---Thomas Hughes Milner
Twelve years ago or so my family and I began meeting in our house on the Lord’s day. This was out of a conviction that the churches nearby were not constituted after New Testament patterns. In particular, I believed the pastorate was wrongly constituted. The churches needed Biblical eldership and not professional pastors.
In searching for teaching from the Word concerning the operation of the churches, I came across an internet site devoted to house churches and eldership. There I found an article pertaining to eldership which resonated with me more than anything I had read before. It was the chapter entitled “The overseers” in this book.
The wisdom displayed by the author prompted me to search for the book, to no avail.
A few years passed. More things became accessible on the internet. Maybe it was just my internet search skills that improved. Or maybe my determination to find the book grew. At any rate I was able to locate what are apparently the only existing copies of the book, three in libraries in the United States, two in Britain. Due to the condition of the books, published one hundred and fifty years ago, they were not available outside the libraries, which were far from me. However recently I was able to obtain photocopies of the text from the University of Glasgow Library. That book is reprinted here.
Mr. Milner’s teaching here is comprehensive. In reading the book I came to understand that the Christian ministry has been compromised in virtually every aspect. It is not just eldership—or lack of it—that is the problem. Indeed, that is only a symptom.
First published in 1858 as The Messiah’s Ministry, the book evidently fell into obscurity. At least, it has long been out of print. Why? Likely because the New Testament scriptures were usually read, then as now, through the lens of prevailing church polity and practice. Thus the book when published did not resonate with Christians. It is unlikely it will resonate today except with those few standing “outside the camp.” Or, perhaps, with those opening the door to Jesus, who at the end of the age stands not in the midst of, but at the door of, His church, Rev. 3:20.
Thomas Hughes Milner (1825-1866) lived in or around Edinburgh, Scotland. Very little is known of him—except to God—other than that he published “The Christian Advocate” and a number of books. He was baptized in a Scotch Baptist church in 1842 and later formed a congregation which subsequently joined with the Churches of Christ. But even this limited information is misleading in that the author thoroughly excoriates sectarianism (or as he occasionally writes, “sectarism”) in this treatise. Therefore it should no doubt be understood that he came out of the former sect and was not personally associated with the latter. This man was no sectarian.
Let us also establish who Mr. Milner isn’t. An internet search for “Thomas Milner” reveals other men not to be confused with him. He is clearly not the “Rev. Thomas Milner” who was ordained “a priest” in the Church of England in 1893. Neither is he the Thomas Milner who published numerous geographical and historical works and who died in 1882. We know very little about Mr. Milner, but we know who he isn’t. However, as far as a doctrinal treatise can reveal a man’s character, this book indeed reveals who he is.
Mr. Milner finished his treatise in 1858 (at the age of 33!) at which time it was published in Edinburgh by “J. MENZIES, 61 & 63 PRINCES STREET. LONDON: HOULSTON & WRIGHT. GLASGOW: J. BROWN. MANCHESTER: W. BREMNER.”
A word about the title change. In his introduction the author acknowledged ambivalence about his title. I wish he had gone the other way and called his book “The Christian Ministry.” I have retitled it accordingly. (Books are occasionally republished under a new title.) In choosing “The Messiah’s Ministry” he conceded “the Christian ministry” to the clericalists and their supporters. But this book is emphatically about the Christian ministry in every aspect.
Note here, the historical context for the book–19th-century Anglican England–by no means renders irrelevant the author's denunciation of sectarianism. The apparently benign character of 21st-century sectarianism ("denominationalism" conveniently untethers it from the NT name for it), as contrasted with its character in former centuries, in no way makes it defensible from the Scriptures. Sectarianism is a blot on the church in any age notwithstanding the presence or absence of sectarian hostilities. Milner's denunciation remains relevant because I Corinthians 3 remains relevant.
Before you read the book please review the table of contents. Notice the simplicity! The elegant simplicity! This assuredly testifies to the perfection of our Lord's design for the church. The Creator of the universe is no less Chief Architect of the church. Should not the reader of a treatise on the design of the church expect to find evidence of said design in the book's outline? Well, here it is. No obfuscation here. No obscurantism. No mysticism. No philosophizing. No scholasticism. Only the simplicity that is in Christ.
I encourage the reader to first of all read the chapter on overseers. The true eldership of the churches was lost long ago. (Though, no doubt it has been practiced, at various times and in various places, in a faithful remnant of churches.) Even in the apostolic age we see the rise of the Nicolaitanes, of one Diotrephes, and of the false apostles. Paul warned Colosse against being captivated by "any man," no doubt anticipating the rise of the one-man professional pastorate. The Reformation did not touch this problem, though the Reformers proposed to restore the priesthood of believers; instead they simply practiced a new quasi-priesthood by another name. They called it the ministry! In those churches today with eldership in place, it is usually nominal eldership, the elders deferring to the professional pastorate. If the church is to return to an apostolic order it will be led there by its overseers. But of course the overseers must first assume their responsibilities–The elders which are among you I exhort...feed the flock of God which is among you, I Peter 5:1-2.
Concerning the editing, I have chosen to omit the first six chapters of Mr. Milner’s text. The original book had twenty-three chapters; now it has seventeen. I hope it makes the book more accessible. Though Mr. Milner did not divide his book into parts, I believe the book divides into “positional ecclesiology” and “operational ecclesiology,” the omitted six chapters constituting the former. I do not mean to diminish the positional aspect but rather to focus attention on what I think is the meat of the book. Bible believers would find little if anything in the omitted chapters which could be called controversial. However it is in the practical, operational details that the church has erred, thus giving credence to the adage, “the devil is in the details.” I have chosen to feature the operational aspect.
In his introduction the author makes note of his frequent use of Greek words. For ease of publication I have omitted the original Greek except where it was thought to be indispensable. I have retained the English equivalents (e.g., ecclesia) in italics. Further I took the liberty of reformatting many of his Bible citations in italics instead of quotation marks, though short phrases and verses where the author italicized specific words are left in quotations. Also I retained his archaic spellings, e.g., “authorise” or “characterise” or “practising,” etc. These are not proofreading errors. Finally, I capitalized a few words such as “Christian” which he chose not to capitalize. He does not capitalize “he” when it is a reference to God or to Jesus Christ, and I left this alone. Other words he capitalized I left alone, though the capitalization may seem curious to the reader.
My thanks to Emma Malarkey and Joanne Docherty of the University of Glasgow Library for providing the manuscript; to my son Sam, and daughter Anna, for their faithful typing; to Sam for his assistance in proofreading; to my wife for her encouragement. And Mr. Milner, I will look for you in heaven! You are—like the apostles—one of the fools at the end of the parade.
I pray it pleases the Lord, in this republication of Mr. Milner’s treatise, that the author might “demolish arguments” by a straightforward commendation of the truth, to the end that Jesus Christ is glorified as Head of the church.
Deep River, Iowa, USA
November 12, 2012