There are few works that better reflect the wisdom of a spiritual mind than that of the Ecclesial Guide. It was written by brother Robert Roberts in 1883 when he was 44 years of age. From a review of his autobiography and brother Islip Collyer’s book on his life, it appears that there was no specific incident that points to the cause for brother Roberts to pen such a useful and judicious publication, but it has proved to be of inestimable value to ecclesias over the intervening years.

The full title aptly describes the intent of the 54 page booklet; it is A Guide to the Formation and Conduct of Christadelphian Ecclesias. The book is often first read during a controversy, and in which case, if its words are adhered to, it makes a significant contribution to the process of “healing any breach”. To really appreciate the value of the work, it is better read without controversy, with quiet meditation in one or two sittings. In these circumstances, the wise counsel of the book becomes more apparent with a mind more receptive to its total message rather than to that section which best suits one’s position.

The words of the Apostle Paul, “Let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Cor 14:40), which appropriately describe the purpose of the book, were written against the background of ecclesial disorder, strife and conflict brought about by the misuse of the Holy Spirit gifts, so that Paul was caused to write, “be not children in understanding … but in understanding be mature” (1 Cor 14:20 RSV). Such strife is “carnal” and to be avoided. James says (3:14-16): “But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth. This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work”. While it is well understood that one must stand for Truth, we are being warned against strife stemming from “foolish and unlearned questions”. How do we avoid this? Paul provides the answer “the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient” (2 Tim 2:24), so that all things can be done unto edifying. This is the purpose of the Guide.

The Guide commences where it ought, at our very foundation, by explaining the words, “ecclesia” and “Christadelphian” to encourage the use of these terms as descriptive of a congregation of believers who have separated from Church and State to be identified with the Son of God through baptism.

In the absence of divinely appointed leadership, Brother Roberts suggests that “mutual consent” is the only basis of order. He writes: “In all communities, large or small, there must be order and mutual submission, in order to attain the objects of their existence…. Two things have to be secured in the conduct of an ecclesia, which are capable, in a wrong mode of working, of becoming inconsistent with one another, but which, with care, wisdom, and patience, can be so reconciled as to both have their full and effective place. The one is ORDER, and the other INDIVIDUAL LIBERTY. Both are essential to the healthy and harmonious life of an ecclesia”.

 To maintain order, Brother Roberts recommends as the only practical solution that, “the lesser number should submit to the greater”, notwithstanding that it is “doubtless a concession to the evil principle of democracy”. Further, to those that serve the ecclesia in any form, let them be described as “serving brethren” as it befits the words of our Lord – “he that is greatest among you, let him be as… he that doth serve”. Such brethren should also conform to the qualifications that Paul describes in 1 Timothy 3:1-7. Arranging Brethren must be given the authority to act in the best interests of the ecclesia but be accountable to it in general meeting.

Brother Roberts further outlines the duties and responsibilities of other “serving brethren” including Presiding, Recording and Finance brethren, and the mode of conduct for our meetings. This makes for important reading for all our brethren, particularly our younger brethren about to undertake such appointments. When Brother Roberts comes to address matters affecting “individual liberty”, his spiritual mindedness and years of experience in the Truth, during which time he has had the important yet distressing responsibility of preserving the purity of the Truth, and at the same time being anxious that “none be lost”, are very evident. He tactfully, and with a balanced approach, leads us through the steps involving a brother who has created offence in what he has said or done. And, in the event that a decision in these matters is not acceptable to all, he describes as “a law of the house”, that none should absent themselves from “the table of our Lord”.

 He then moves to the most delicate and perhaps the most difficult of all matters, the relationship between ecclesias. What if an ecclesia receives into fellowship a brother or a sister who has been withdrawn from by another ecclesia? In setting out “reasonable rules of procedure” to be followed, Brother Roberts is at pains to allow each ecclesia to make their own assessment of the case (not being one of doctrine) and let each ecclesia abide by its own decision. He makes the appeal, “Are the two ecclesias that are agreed in the basis of fellowship to fall out because they are of a different judgment on a question of fact?” This would be a lamentable result.

This section of the Guide concludes with a warning against establishing a hierarchy that subsumes individual ecclesial autonomy, the difficulties that follow marriage with the unbeliever and the operations of a Sunday School.

The book then follows with a pro forma set of rules for each ecclesia to adopt embodying many of the points already discussed in the Guide. It then concludes with a “Statement of the Doctrines Forming the Christadelphian Basis of Fellowship” and the “Doctrines to be Rejected”.

To any young brother who has not yet read this little booklet, take it up and come to appreciate the wise counsel that it provides. For those considering baptism, be instructed in ecclesial matters and come to understand that there is a proper way of conduct within the body of Christ. May this book continue to be our Guide, and for the brethren who lead us, may it be faithfully practised that we “may know how we ought to behave ourselves in the house of God, which is the ecclesia of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).

We thank our God for this work which has now been in our midst for 112 years through the faithful ministry of a wise brother who has gone before, Brother Robert Roberts.

A personal observation from Brother Islip Collyer:

“He comes before the eye of the mind now after all these years as distinctly as if he had been seen only yesterday – his portly form, his florid complexion, his red and rather straggling beard and moustache, his dark hair oiled and brushed back from the forehead. Most impressive of features, the deep set penetrating eyes, so short sighted that he might pass a friend unrecognized, but eyes which when they found their mark, gave unmistakable evidence of something very unusual behind them.”