- Daniel Klassen
The Anxious Bench and the Elder's Chair
As America crossed the threshold of the eighteenth century into the nineteenth century, an unprecedented change to Christianity loomed on the horizon. Perhaps the winds of change were blowing throughout the eighteenth century, but it seemed they were felt by only a few. Nevertheless, these winds brought immense change to Christianity as a whole.
The revivals of the early eighteenth-century, known as "The First Great Awakening," left an incredible impression on American Christians. During that time, the awakening of nominal Christians and sinners to passionate devotion to God was rarely referred to as a "revival" in comparison to the terms, "Work of the Holy Spirit," or "Surprising conversion." This simple observation only scratches the surface of the theology regarding revivals at that time, a theology which led to sustained success.
The wind of change I am referring to is a significant change in the understanding of conversion which leading to a change evangelism which inevitably led to a change in understanding orthodox Christianity. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly where this wind of change came from, but because the famous Charles Finney rose to influential status as a preacher in the early nineteenth century, many attribute these ideas to him. However, to do so seems disingenuous to the matter of history, for at this time, many from England began to flood the colonies with their new ideas, the Methodist denomination's influence increased, and an itch for revival seemed to plague many Christian preachers.
If we were to take a step back and observe these two centuries and the ideas of revival and Christianity present in each, two summarizing pictures appear: the anxious bench and the elder's chair.
The Anxious Bench
Otherwise called "the anxious seat," "the mourner's chair," and "the altar call," this mode of revival and evangelism gathered attention in the early eighteenth century both through small magazine publications and lectures by the likes of Charles Finney. As this mode was gaining popularity, one pastor wrote of an instance where he had just finished a discourse on Romans 6:23, and looking up, he saw that the entire congregation seemed to be deeply affected. He was stunned and did not say anything for a minute or two, and after a while, about twenty of them stood and walked to the front responding to an altar call that was not given.
The anxious bench was for those who had been so deeply affected by the preaching that they wished to be saved. Promised with the anxious bench was that the individuals, by sitting there, coming forward, raising their hands, or kneeling, received salvation. What was not realized at this time was that by emphasizing these visual signs of conversion, many false conversions occurred. Indeed, preachers were able to manipulate the emotions of the people to achieve the end of raised conversion numbers. Raised conversion numbers were seen as a success, and success indicated everything done was correct and approved by God. As a result, revival was replaced with revivalism.
A whole new theology concerning salvation was needed to legitimize these conversions. Finney saw the doctrine of man's total depravity as an obstacle in his listener's ears and committed a large portion of his teaching to lessen the idea of man's inherent sinfulness in the minds of Christians. If he was to gain large numbers of converts by means of an anxious bench or a sinner's prayer, he was to promote the power of man's will and denigrate the power of sin.
He argued thus: "When God commands us to do a thing it is the highest possible evidence that we can do it. He has no right to command unless we have the power to obey." Further, he spoke out against the preachers of the day as being uninformed and disinterested in revival because they would not subscribe to his mode. However, his mode, as it turned out, needed a theology opposed to historically orthodox doctrine to work.
If I may comment on his argument, it is almost word for word from Pelagius's teaching in the fourth century. If you are unfamiliar with it, the essence of his teaching was to make nothing the cross of Christ for the sole purpose of praising the will of man. And that is exactly what Finney was doing. If success was to be had in revival, the easiest route was not to wait for the Spirit to work but to bring it about himself, and to bring it about himself, conversion had to be the decision of the will. This led to the conclusion that anything which brought the individual to the point of submission had to be good. He saw that it was "necessary to raise an excitement among them," and that meant he had to bring something new.
The Elder's Chair
Finney was not content with the older method of revival—prayer, preaching the gospel, and passively awaiting the Holy Spirit. Historically, however, Finney's new model of evangelism does not hold a candle to the consistency and power of the old, 'ordinary,' and biblical model. This old model is summarized in the elder's chair.
I suspect most of my readers are unfamiliar with an elder's chair since so few churches seem to have one. The elder's chair is a seat, numerous seats, or a pew (as it is in my church), located at the front of the church, and facing the congregation where the pastors and elders sit. At first glance, it appears to be nothing more than a seat of prominence (which I presume to be the reason many churches have forsaken it). However, the chair does not have any true inherent significance, for significance is only found in the reason they sit there.
The chair visibly signifies the roles and relationships in church life. As the pastor sits upon it, the flock see the under-shepherd God has placed over them. Likewise, the pastor sees all who are entrusted to his care. In this exchange, the flock sees their leaders who guide them to Christ. They pray for them. They go to them for help. They support their leadership. The pastor sees those with needs, those struggling, those who are weary, those who are strong, those who have grown much, and those who have not. He sees them and is reminded of his need to care for their souls. (I must note that if your church does not have an elder's chair, it does not mean your church is lacking. If you know the ones whom God has set over you to care for your soul and they know you, you have all that is necessary for you to flourish.)
Of course, the elder's chair is much less exciting than the anxious bench. The anxious bench promises growth and freshness, while in the elder's chair sits the same person for some years. Yet, the elder's chair produces something the anxious bench cannot: consistency and security.
We know Finney's theology was wrong when we read Paul's theology: "For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes the knowledge of sin" (Rom. 3:20); "Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith" (Gal. 3:24 KJV). Paul's message clearly contradicts Finney's. It is a message that puts man in his proper place, teaching him that he is in great need of gracious help for the duration of his life. In other places, we find Paul doing the opposite of Finney: promoting God's power and grace in salvation.
Building upon a completely different theology of salvation, the significance of the elder's chair provides the necessary help to Christians which the anxious bench cannot. On the anxious bench, it is only for a moment, and we are alone. With the elder's chair, we have a present, continuing help. When we think too highly of ourselves, we concoct methods and modes which Scripture does not support, nor practice proves beneficial.
Let us, then, forsake the promotion of the human will for deep and reverent awe of the sovereign grace and power of God. Let us wait patiently for Him to work. As is well documented in the history of the Church, when we take matters into our own hands, it all ends in failure. It may be tangible, there may be initial results, and our own methods may cause more excitement, but it is not God's way.
 Taken from Revival and Revivalism by Ian Murray. (Murray, Ian, Revival and Revivalism [Edinburg, UK. Banner of Truth. 1994], 245)