It is obviously incumbent on the members of any community, whether civil or sacred, to acquaint themselves with its constitution and design; without this, they can neither adequately enjoy the privileges, nor properly discharge the duties, which their membership brings with it. Such people are held more by feeling than by principle; a tenure quite insufficient, as a bond of religious connection.
It is admitted that as in the human frame, so in the system of divine truth, there are parts of greater and less importance--and the man who would put the principles of church government upon a level with the doctrine of the atonement, and represent a belief in the former as no less essential to salvation than a reliance upon the latter, betrays a lamentable ignorance of both.
Still, however, although the hand is of less consequence to vitality than the head or the heart, is it of no value? Will any one be reckless of his members, because he can lose them and yet live? So because church government is of less importance to spiritual and eternal life than faith in Christ, will any one abandon it as a vain and profitless subject? Whatever God has made the subject of revealed truth, should be guarded, on that account, from being considered as too frivolous to deserve our attention.
The government of the church ought never to be viewed apart from its moral and spiritual improvement, any more than the laws of a country should be considered as something distinct from the means of its civil order, comfort, and strength. It is impossible for us to imagine otherwise, than that Christ, the head of the church, arranged its government with a direct reference to its purity and peace, and that the system he has laid down is the best calculated to promote these ends. Hence, then, it is obviously our duty to inquire what that system is, not merely for its own sake--but for the sake of the interests of evangelical piety.
The error of viewing the subject of church government as a mere abstract question, is very common, and has tended more than anything else, with many people, to lead them to regard it with indifference and neglect. The acknowledgment of no other rule of faith and practice than the word of God, must tend to exalt the only infallible standard of truth, and the only divine means of sanctity--the refusal to own any other head of the church than Christ, must bring the soul into more direct submission to him--the scheme of founding a right to spiritual privileges exclusively on the scriptural marks of religious character, and not upon legislative enactments, or national dissent, must have a tendency to produce examination, and prevent delusion--and indeed the habit of viewing the whole business of religion as a matter of conscience, and not of custom, to be settled between God and a man's own soul, must ensure for it a degree of attention more solemn and more effectual than can be expected, if it be allowed, in any degree, to rank with the affairs which are regulated by civil legislation.
It will probably be contended by some, in apology for their neglect, that the New Testament has laid down no specific form of church government, and that where we are left without a guide, it is useless to inquire if we are following his directions. If by this it be meant to say, that the Lord Jesus Christ has left its no apostolic precept or example, which is either directory for our practice, or obligatory upon our conscience, in the formation of Christian societies, nothing can be more erroneous. It might be presumed, that a matter of such moment would not be left so unsettled, and we have only to look into the Word of God, to see how groundless is the assertion. It is true that we shall search the New Testament in vain for either precedent or practice, which will support all the usages of our churches, any otherwise than as these usages are deduced from the spirit and bearing of general Scriptural principles. These alone are laid down by the apostles--but still with sufficient precision to enable us to determine whether the Episcopal, the Presbyterian, or Independent form of church government, be most consonant with the mind and will of Christ.
What is a Christian church?
The word church signifies an assembly. In the New Testament it invariably applies to people, not to places. It means not the building in which the assembly is convened--but the assembly itself. It has an enlarged, and also a more confined signification in the Word of God. In some places it is employed to comprehend the aggregate of believers of every age and nation; hence we read of the "general assembly and church of the first born," and of the church which "Christ loved and purchased with his blood." In its more confined acceptance, it means a congregation of professing Christians, meeting for worship in one place; hence we read of the church at Corinth, of the Thessalonians, of Ephesus, etc. These are the only two senses in which the word is ever employed by the sacred writers; consequently all provincial and national churches, or, in other words, to call the people of a province or nation a church of Christ, is a most gross perversion of the term, and rendering the kingdom of Jesus more a matter of geography than of piety. The sacred writers, when speaking of the Christians of a whole province, never employ the term in the singular number; but, with great precision of language, speak of the churches of Galatia, Syria, Macedonia, Asia, etc.
A church of Christ, then, in the latter and more usual acceptance of the term, means "a number of professing Christians, united to each other by their own voluntary consent, having their proper officers, meeting in one place for the observance of religious ordinances, and who are independent of all other control than the authority of Christ expressed in his word." This company of professing Christians may be few or many in number, rich or poor in their circumstances, and may meet either in a shoddy or magnificent building--or in no building at all. These things are purely secondary; for, provided they answer to the above definition, they are still, to all intent and purpose, a church of Christ.
I. The members of the church should be such as make a credible profession of their faith in Christ; or, in other words, such as appear to be regenerated by the Spirit of God, to have believed in the Lord Jesus for salvation, and to have submitted themselves in their conduct to the authority of his word. To these the Head of the church has limited the privileges of his kingdom; they alone can enjoy its blessings, and perform its duties; and to such the Epistles are uniformly addressed, Romans 1:7. 1 Cor. 1:2. etc. If these passages are read, it will be found that the members of the first churches are not merely admonished to be saints--but are addressed as such; which is a circumstance of great weight in determining the question about the proper subjects of fellowship.
But who is to judge in this case? I answer, the church; for although no instance can be brought from the New Testament, in which any one of the primitive churches can be proved to have exercised this power, yet, as it is a voluntary society, founded on the principle of mutual affection, it seems reasonable that the church should judge of the existence of those qualifications which are necessary to the enjoyment of communion. The very act of obtruding upon them anyone without their own consent, whether by a minister or by elders, is destructive of one purpose of Christian association--that is, the fellowship of the brethren. Nor is the power of searching the heart requisite for those who exercise the right of admitting others, since we are to judge of each other by outward conduct.
II. This company of professing Christians must meet in one place for the observance of religious institutes. A society that cannot associate, an assembly that cannot assemble, are total contradictions. When, therefore, a church becomes too large to communicate at one table, and divides, to eat the Lord's supper, in two distinct places of worship, each having its own pastor, there are two churches, and no longer one only.
III. These people must be formed into a society upon the principle of mutual voluntary consent. They are not to be associated by act of civil government, by ecclesiastical decree, by ministerial authority, or by any other power than that of their own unconstrained choice. They are to give themselves first to the Lord, and then to each other. No authority whatever, of an earthly nature, is to constrain them to unite themselves in fellowship, nor to select for them any particular company of believers with whom they shall associate. All is to be the result of their own selection. Parochial limits, ecclesiastical divisions of country, together with all the commands of ministerial authority, have nothing to do in regulating the fellowship of the saints. The civil power, when employed to direct the affairs of the church of Christ, is manifestly out of place. It is as much at a man's own option, so far as human authority is concerned, to say with whom he will associate in matters of religion, as it is to decide who shall be his fellows in philosophical or literary pursuits.
IV. A church of Christ has its scriptural officers. Here two questions arise--
First, How many kinds of officers does the New Testament mention?
Secondly, How are they to be chosen?
As to the KINDS of office-bearers in the primitive churches, there can be neither doubt nor difficulty with any one who will impartially consult the Word of God. With all that simplicity which characterizes the works of God, which neither disfigures his productions with what is excessive, nor encumbers them with what is unnecessary, he has instituted but two kinds of permanent officers in his church, bishops (or elders) and deacons; the former to attend to its spiritual affairs, and the latter to direct its temporal concerns. That there were but two, is evident, because we have no information concerning the choice, qualifications, or duties of any other.
The BISHOPS of the primitive churches correspond exactly to the pastors of modern ones. That bishop, elder, and pastor, are only different terms for the same office, is evident from Acts 20:17, compared with the 28; Titus 1:5, 7, and 1st Peter 5:1, 2. They are called BISHOPS, which signifies overseers, because they overlook the spiritual concerns, and watch for the souls of their brethren, Acts 20:28, 1st Tim. 3:1. PASTORS or shepherds, because they feed the flock of God with truth, Ephes. 4:11. RULERS, because they guide the church, Heb. 13:7. ELDERS, because of their age, or of their possessing those qualities which age supposes, Tit. 1:5. MINISTERS, because they are the servants of Christ and the gospel. Ephes. 6:21.
The DEACON is appointed to receive and distribute the funds of the church, especially those which are raised for the relief of the poor. All other kinds of officers than these two, are the inventions of men, and not the appointment of Christ; and which, by intending to add splendor to the kingdom of Jesus, have corrupted its simplicity, destroyed its spirituality, and caused it to symbolize with the kingdoms of this world.
On the mode of electing them to their office the Scripture is sufficiently explicit, to justify the practice of those denominations who appeal to the voices of the people. If the Acts of the Apostles be studied with care, a book which seems given us more for the regulation of ecclesiastical practices, than the revelation of theological opinions, we shall find that nothing was done in the primitive churches without the cooperation of the members; no, not even when the apostles themselves were present. Even the election of a new apostle was made by the brethren, and not by the ministers exclusively. Acts 1:21, 26. The deacons were chosen by the same people. Acts 6. The decrees of the council at Jerusalem were passed also by them, and went forth with their name. Acts 15:23. From hence we infer, that although no case occurs in the inspired history, where it is mentioned that a church elected its pastor, yet it so entirely accords with the practice of the church in other respects, that an exception in this particular would have been a singular anomaly, which nothing could justify but the plainest and most express provision.
The decisions of reason harmonize, on this subject, with the testimony of revelation; for if we have an undoubted right to choose our own lawyer, or physician, how much more so, to elect the man to whom we shall entrust the care of our soul! If we should feel it hard to be obliged to take the medicines of the parish doctor, whether we liked them or not, how much more oppressive is it, that we should be obliged to hear the opinions of the parish minister, who may have been appointed by the patron for other qualifications than those of a spiritual nature, and whose sentiments may be as much opposed to the doctrines of the gospel, as his conduct is to its holiness! What! are we to be obliged to look up to such a man as our spiritual instructor, because some profligate, who has control of the office, chooses to introduce him to the vacant pulpit?
V. A Christian church, with its office-bearers, is complete within itself, for the observance of divine ordinances, and the exercise of discipline; and is subject to no authority or tribunal on earth. This is the Congregational or Independent form of church government, and it is thus denominated, to distinguish it from the Episcopal, or the government of a bishop, and from the Presbyterian, or the government of the churches by the authority of their assembled pastors and elders. No trace of any foreign control over a church of Christ, can be found in the New Testament, except such as the representatives of Jesus Christ.
VI. Such a church is bound, by the authority of Christ, in their associated capacity, to observe all the institutes, to obey all the commands, and to cherish all the dispositions, which relate to their social union, in the time, order, and manner in which they are enjoined by Christ Jesus. They are to assemble in public on the first day of the week for prayer, praise, hearing the Scriptures read and expounded, celebrating the Lord's supper, and exercising mutual affection. They are also bound by divine authority to maintain the purity of the church, by receiving only such as give evidence of true faith, and by excluding from their communion all those whose life is opposed to the doctrine which is according to godliness. They are to live in the exercise of mutual submission and brotherly love, and ever to consider themselves responsible to the tribunal of Christ, for their conduct in their church capacity.
Such is a very concise view of the nature of a Christian church.
Hence what might be termed the GENERAL principles of the New Testament on this topic, are the all-sufficiency and exclusive authority of the Scriptures as a rule of faith and practice in matters of religion--the consequent denial of the right of legislatures and ecclesiastical conventions to impose any rites, ceremonies, observances, or interpretations of the Word of God, upon our belief and practice--the unlimited and inalienable right of every man to expound the Word of God for himself, and to worship his Maker in that place and manner which he deems to be most accordant with the directions of the Bible--the utter impropriety of any alliance or incorporation of the church of Christ with the governments of the kingdoms of this world--the duty of every Christian to oppose the authority which would attempt to fetter his conscience with obligations to religious observances not enjoined by Christ. These are general principles, which should lead the thinking Christian to separate from all national establishments of religion whatever.
It is not enough to plead the authority of 'example', or of mere 'feeling', as a reason for any religious service. These are insufficient pilots on the troubled ocean of theological opinion, where opposing currents, stormy winds, and concealed rocks, endanger the safety of the voyager to eternity. Our compass is the word of God; 'reason' must be the steersman at the helms to guide the vessel by the direction of the needle, and that mariner is accountable for the consequences, who is too ignorant or too indolent to examine his course.
Away with that morbid insensibility which exclaims, "It is of no consequence to what church or denomination a man belongs, provided he be a Christian." Such a spirit is a conspiracy against the throne of truth, and is the first step towards a complete abandonment of the importance of right sentiments. Admitting that error is to be measured by a graduated scale, who will undertake to fix upon the point where harmless mistakes end--and mischievous ones begin? Everything relating to religion is of consequence. In the temple of truth, not only the foundation is to be valued and defended--but every point and every pinnacle.
It does not necessarily follow that an inquiry into the grounds of our conduct should embitter our temper. The mist of angry passion obscures the splendor of truth, as much as fogs do the effulgence of the solar orb. Let us contend earnestly for right principles--but let it be in the exercise of right feelings. Let us hold the truth in love. Then do our sentiments appear to greatest advantage, and look like gems set in gold, when they are supported by a spirit of Christian charity.
"O divine love! the sweet harmony of souls! the music of angels! the joy of God's own heart; the very darling of his bosom! the source of true happiness! the pure quintessence of heaven! that which reconciles the jarring principles of the world, and makes them all chime together! that which melts men's hearts into one another! See how Paul describes it, and it cannot choose but enamor your affections towards it--"Love envies not, it is not puffed up, it does not behave itself unseemly, seeks not her own, is not easily provoked, thinks no evil, rejoices not in iniquity; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." I may add, love is the best natured thing, the best complexioned thing in the world. Let us express this sweet harmonious affection in these jarring times; that so, if it be possible, we may tune the world into better music. Especially in matters of religion, let us strive with all meekness to instruct and convince one another. Let us endeavor to promote the gospel of peace, the dove-like gospel, with a dove-like spirit. This was the way by which the gospel at first was propagated in the world.
"Christ did not cry nor lift up his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he did not break, and the smoking flax he did not quench; and yet he brought forth judgment unto victory. He whispered the gospel to us from mount Zion, in a still voice; and yet the sound thereof went out quickly throughout all the earth. The gospel at first came down upon the world gently and softly, like the dew on Gideon's fleece; and yet it quickly penetrated through it; and, doubtless, this is still the most effectual way to promote it farther. Sweetness and kindness will more command men's minds, than angry passion, sourness, and severity; as the soft pillow sooner breaks the flint than the hardest marble. Let us "follow truth in love;" and of the two, indeed, be contented rather to miss of the conveying a speculative truth, than to part with love. When we would convince men of any error by the strength of truth, let us withal pour the sweet balm of love upon their heads. Truth and love are two of the most powerful things in the world; and when they both go together, they cannot easily be withstood. The golden beams of truth, and the silken cords of love, twisted together, will draw men on with a sweet power, whether they will or not.
"Let us take heed we do not sometimes call that zeal for God and his gospel, which is nothing else but our own tempestuous and stormy passion. True zeal is a sweet, heavenly, and gentle flame, which makes us active for God--but always within the sphere of love. It never calls for fire from heaven to consume those who differ a little from us in their apprehensions. It is like that kind of lightning, (which the philosophers speak of,) that melts the sword within--but singes not the scabbard--it strives to save the soul--but hurts not the body. True zeal is a loving thing, and makes us always active to edification, and not to destruction. If we keep the fire of zeal within the chimney, in its own proper place, it never does any hurt; it only warms, quickens, and enlivens us; but if once we let it break out, and catch hold of the thatch of our flesh, and kindle our corrupt nature, and set the house of our body on fire, it is no longer zeal, it is no heavenly fire, it is a most destructive and devouring thing. True zeal is a soft and gentle flame, that will not scorch one's hand; it is no predatory or voracious thing. Carnal and fleshly zeal is like the spirit of gunpowder set on fire, that tears and blows up all that stands before it. True zeal is like the vital heat in us, that we live upon, which we never feel to be angry or troublesome; but though it gently feed upon the radical oil within us, that sweet balsam of our natural moisture, yet it lives lovingly with it, and maintains that by which it is fed--but that other furious and distempered zeal, is nothing else but a fever in the soul.
"To conclude, we may learn what kind of zeal it is, that we should make use of in promoting the gospel, by an emblem of God's own, given us in the Scripture, those fiery tongues, that upon the day of Pentecost sat upon the Apostles--which sure were harmless flames, for we cannot read that they did any hurt, or that they did so much as singe an hair of their heads." Cudworth's Sermon before the House of Commons, 1647.