A CHURCH OF CHRIST
OFFICERS, LAWS, DUTIES, & FORM OF GOVERNMENT.
A SERMON delivered, Lord’s Day, September 22, 1844
At Gilead Meeting House, Union Dist., South Carolina
Published by Request by William Bullein Johnson, D.D., Minister of the Gospel at Edgefield C. H., (S.C.)
W. F. Durisoe, Printer – 1844
The Author had no skeleton or notes before him, when he delivered this discourse. In preparing it for the press, therefore, he has been obliged to depend on his memory. He is persuaded that the substance of what he delivered is preserved, though the precise words, which he used, or the exact order of the arguments and illustrations, which he employed, may not be retained. On some points he has enlarged, and a part of what he published in the “Southern Baptist Advocate” of the last year, on some of the subjects discussed in this discourse, has been freely used.
His object, in preaching the sermon, was to promote the good of Zion and the glory of her divine Head, and the same object has led him to publish it. To God the Spirit, he commends the discourse, with earnest prayer, that He would vouchsafe to employ it, as a means of doing good.
“Moreover, if thy brother has trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: If he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses, every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man, and as a publican.” Matthew 18:15-17
In this passage, the Savior teaches his disciples how to proceed in the case of members of the church, in which one had committed a trespass against another. If the trespassing brother is not gained by the private means, pointed out for the observance of the aggrieved brother, the case must be taken to the church; whose duty it is, if they cannot reclaim him, to separate him from their communion, and the decision is final. No appeal lies to any other church or body of men. In the Epistle to the Corinthians, the Apostle directs the church to put away from them the incestuous man, and from the decision of that church there lay no appeal.
The order of proceeding, laid down in these cases of discipline by the Savior and his Apostle, the one relating to a private trespass, and the other to a public offence, shews very clearly, that the church is constituted the highest tribunal on this earth in the management of her own affairs. The authority with which she is thus vested, is delegated to her by her great Head, without the liberty of transferring it to any human power. And if she cannot transfer it, no human power can assume it. It becomes, then, a matter of the greatest importance, to ascertain what the church is; what the materials are of which she is composed; who are her officers; what are her laws; her discipline, and the form of her government. Behold, then, in these particulars the division of our discourse. Before we proceed, however, to the investigation of these particulars, we shall endeavor to fix the definite meaning of the term church in our text.
This term is, in the original Greek, “ecclesia,” and denotes an assembly or congregation. It was used in the Grecian Democracies, to designate an assembly of the citizens called out by the proper authority. Though the term is sometimes employed to signify an assembly of people unrighteously gathered together, as in Acts 19:32, – “The assembly (ecclesia) was confused, and the more part knew not wherefore they were come together.” The leading import of this term is an assembly, or congregation. In this sense, the New Testament Writers use it as applying to the people of God. One of its uses in this respect will be seen in the following passages: “Upon this rock, I will build my church, ecclesia, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” “The God of our Lord Jesus Christ, gave Him to be the head over all things to the church, ecclesia, which is his Body, the fullness of him; that filleth all in all.” “Christ loved the church, ecclesia, and gave himself for it.” “He is head over all things to the church,” ecclesia. From these passages it is evident, that this term means the assembly, the congregation, the whole Body of redeemed souls, who, called out of darkness into light by Christ, as their Head, will constitute the general Assembly and church of the first born, whose names are written in Heaven. That this is not the sense, in which the term is to be received in our text, will satisfactorily appear from the fact, that the whole Body of the saints, the general church, cannot be assembled on earth for the management of its affairs. Some of its members are now “the spirits of just men made perfect.” Others are in a course of preparation for being added to them, and millions more are yet to undergo the same blessed preparation, that they may attain to a fitness for the same society.
A second use of this term will be seen in the following Scriptures: “There was a great persecution against the church, ecclesia, which was at Jerusalem.” Of this “church, Paul made havoc.” After the conversion of this Persecutor, “the churches, ecclesae, had rest throughout all Judea, and Galilee and Samaria.” “There were in the church, ecclesia, that was at Antioch, certain Prophets and Teachers.” And when the Judaizing teachers, pretending authority from the church at Jerusalem, went down to the church at Antioch, and taught that they must be circumcised and keep the law of Moses, some of these teachers were out to Jerusalem to enquire if such authority had been given. On their arrival, “they were received of the church, ecclesia, and the Apostles and Elders.” We read also of the churches, ecclesae, at Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Colosse, Philippi, Achaia, Galatia, and Asia Minor. What were these churches, but different assemblies or congregations of the general assembly and church of the first born, whose names are written in Heaven, associated together for local convenience in different places, to worship God, to promote their own edification, maintain discipline, and exhibit the grace and power of their great Head? By the light thus shed on the subject, we learn that by the church in our text, we are to understand any one of these assemblies or congregations associated together in any given place for the objects of their appointment, and vested with authority to manage their own affairs, subject only to Christ Jesus their Law Giver and Judge.
We will now proceed to treat of the particulars, which form the divisions of our discourse. And,
I. Of the materials, of which the Church is composed.
These are sinners, penitent believing sinners, baptized upon a profession of their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The multitude assembled on the day of Pentecost were addressed by Peter, as a company of sinners: many of them, priced in their hearts, cried out, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Peter answered, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins.” “Then they that gladly received his word, were baptized, and the same day there were added to them about three thousand souls. And they continued steadfastly in the Apostles doctrine, and fellowship, and in breaking of bread and in prayers.” These, with those in the church at Jerusalem before, constituted the members of that Church. “Philip went down to Samaria and preached Christ unto them.” And, “when they believed Philip, preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized both men and women.” These were the materials of which the church at Samaria was composed. “Crispus, the chief ruler of the Synagogue, believed on the Lord, with all his house,” and was baptized by Paul. And “many of the Corintheans hearing believed, and were baptized.” These were the materials with which the Corinthian church was constituted. The faith of the members of the church of Rome was spoken of in all the world. These were buried with him in Baptism. Such too were the members of the church of Galatia, Ephesus, Colosse, and the others recorded in the New Testament.
That such materials, were the only ones, that the Apostles and other inspired preachers could admit to the membership of the churches is evident from the commission, under which they acted. “Go, teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things, whatsoever I have commanded you.” There is an important difference of meaning between the words “teach” and “teaching” in this commission. The first is in the original “Matheteusate,” and the last is, “Didascontes.” The import of “Matheteusate” is, to make disciples; of “Didascontes” to impart instruction. The proper rendering of the commission then is: “Go, make disciplines in all nations, baptizing them (the disciples) in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them, (the disciples) to observe,” & c.
And such was the mode of their proceeding as we have seen. They neither did, nor could, make the nations, disciples. Neither did they, nor could they baptize the nations. But they did make disciples of persons in the nations and baptize them, and form them into churches, to whom they did teach all things, that Christ had commanded them. The baptizing then refers to the disciples made, and was administered to them after they were made disciples and not before. And this order of things accords with the commission as recorded by Mark: “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved.” And in all this, the Apostles had the example of their Master, and could not therefore be mistaken: “When therefore the Lord knew how the Pharisees had heard, that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John, (though Jesus himself baptized not, but his disciples,) He left Judea.” John 4:1,2,3. It thus satisfactorily appears, that the materials of the church are sinners, penitent, believing sinners baptized upon a profession of their faith in Christ. We proceed,
II. Secondly to ascertain the officers of the church.
These are bishops and deacons. We shall begin with the bishops, and for information on this point, we refer to the following scriptures:
“And when they (‘Paul and Barnabas’) had ordained them elders in every church.” Acts 14:23. “And when they’ the delegates from the Antioch church were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles, and elders.” Acts 15:4. “From Miletus, he (Paul) sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church.” “And when they were come unto him, he said unto them – Take heed to yourselves, and to all the flock over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, “or bishops” to feed the church of God.” Acts 20: 17, 18, 28. “Let the elders, that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and doctrine. – For the labourer is worthy of his hire.” 1Tim. 5:17. “The elders which are among you, I exhort,” saith Peter, “who am also an elder.” “Feed the flock of God, which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as being Lords over God’s heritage, but being as ensamples to the flock.” 1 Pet. 4: 1,2,3. Paul writes to the church at Philippi “with the bishops and deacons” Phill.1:6. And in his Epistle to Timothy says, “he that desireth the office of a bishop desireth a good work.” 1Tim. 3:1. To the Ephesians he says, “Christ, gave – some pastors.” James says, “Is any sick among you, let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick.” James 5:14,15. The apostle says to Titus, “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldst ordain elders in every city.” Titus 1:5. To the Thessalonians and Hebrews very particular directions are given in relation to the treatment which bishops or elders should receive, “We beseech you brethren, to know them which labor among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake.” “Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken to you the word of God: Whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation. Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever.” “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves, for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy and not with grief; for it is unprofitable for you.”
From these Scriptures we derive the following information concerning bishops.
1. That each church, in the days of the apostles, had elders set over her by the Holy Ghost, and that each church was required to render respect, submission, and obedience to them as officers set over them by divine authority.
2. That these elders were styled bishops, overseers, pastors, and notwithstanding there were in each church more elders than one, they were all equal in rank and authority, no one having a pre-eminence over the other.
3. That the duties of these elders consist in taking heed to themselves, and to the flock committed to their charge, in feeding and supervising the whole body.
4. That there was a division of labor between these elders. Whilst all were rulers, some in addition to the authority of office, labored in the word and doctrine, that is, preached the Gospel; but the others did not.
5. That these elders or bishops were to be counted worthy of liberal support, especially such as labored in the word and doctrine, and on the equitable principle, that ‘the laborer is worthy of his hire.’
It has been said above, that the elders were styled bishops, overseers, pastor. These words are all expressive of the same officer. In confirmation of this, let it be considered that the word episcopos, in the original Greek, is the same word used by the apostle in 1Tim. 3:2, Phil. 1:1, and in Acts 20:28. In the passage in Timothy, Paul says, “A bishop (episcopos) must be blameless.” In Philippians; “With the bishops (episcopos) and deacons.” In Acts; “Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers,” (episcopos). Bishops and overseers are then translations of the same word, and mean the same thing. But Paul calls the elders of the church at Miletus, overseers. Therefore bishops and overseers and elders are the same. Overseer, bishop, elder, then all mean the same officer of the church. To all these Paul says, “Feed the church of God.” Pastor means Feeder and therefore pastor is used as of the same import with bishop, overseer, elder. But the term bishop is the appropriate term of office and all pastors should be called bishops, because pastor does not denote the officer of the church, that bishop is intended to express. The term elder denotes age, experience, dignity, and pastor the business of feeding the church. The bishop or overseer of the church should posses the advantage of years, or at least dignity and experience. “He should not be a novice, lest being lifted with pride, he fall into the condemnation of the devil.” The bishop should also be a pastor; a feeder of the flock committed to his charge. Hence it will be seen that bishop is the proper term for the spiritual officers of the church.
As we are familiar with the term overseer in this country, it may perhaps be useful to consider the analogy between the temporal overseer and the spiritual overseer. The temporal overseer has the oversight of a plantation. The spiritual overseer, of a church of God. The temporal overseer is employed by the owner, the spiritual, by God whose property the church is. The temporal overseer governs the plantation, not by the laws which he makes or the laborers exact, but by those which the owner lays down. The spiritual overseer governs the church by the laws, which God has laid down, and not by those which the members pass, or he himself may make. The temporal overseer receives his compensation from his employer, out of the fruit of the laborers’ work. The spiritual overseer receives his in the same way, with this difference, that whilst the employer of the temporal overseer makes the agreement with him, it is the members of the church that make the agreement with the spiritual overseer in the name of God, the owner of them all. The office of the temporal overseer is executive only, not legislative. So also is it with the spiritual overseer. The complete code of laws for the church is contained in the New Testament, and neither the church nor the overseer has the authority of changing any part of this code, or adding any laws to it. Should the church and her officers so disagree in their understanding of this code that they cannot continue together profitably, let them separate in love.
Of these bishops and overseers, the primitive churches had a plurality, that is, more than one to each church. And this we apprehend, is practicable now. The Apostle evidently makes a distinction in the duties of the bishops and elders. “Let the Elders, that rule well, be counted worthy of double honor; especially they that labor in the word and doctrine.” All the elders rule, but some labor in the word and doctrine, and others do not. All have the authority of rulers, officers of the church, but there are different duties to be performed in overseeing the flock. The church is to be kept in order, the members are to be visited in sickness and in health, for comfort, direction, admonition, reproof, and instruction. Differences between members are to be reconciled, and breaches are to be healed. Now many brethren are to be found in the churches that are competent to these duties, who cannot preach the Gospel of Christ, and who can better do these duties, than many preachers can. These men need not the labor of study, as the preacher does. They do not need as much time to themselves, as he does. Many of them have acquired, in their different pursuits a comfortable property, with that judgment and sagacity, which will enable them to perform most profitably the duties of the supervising and visiting department of the Bishopric. These will need very little compensation for their services, and in most instances would not accept any. The preacher in the Bishopric would need all his time to study the sacred Oracles, and then to preach the truth. He would, therefore, have less to do in the supervision and visiting of the church, though he would unite with his brethren in the same labors. Hence the necessity of his being supported wholly in his work, that he may give himself “to the word of the Lord and to prayer.”
For these elders, bishops, or pastors, a support is required. And what can be more reasonable? As citizens, we cheerfully pay our taxes for the support of government, that its officers may maintain the laws, and secure the prosperity of the land. And why not give our money to support the cause of God, that the officers he appoints over his churches, may maintain the laws of his kingdom, and advance the security of his people. We will give, to overseers of our temporal property, hundreds of dollars as a compensation for their services in managing our affairs. And why should not the church exercise equal liberality in compensating their spiritual overseers, to whose management the Holy Ghost has committed them. We will give large fees to lawyers to conduct our suits in Court, though we may fail of success. Why not as generously contribute to the support of those, who are appointed by Jehovah to our spiritual business. We will spend large sums in conformity to this world, in splendid habitations, furniture and equipages, and costly entertainment for carnal pleasure. Why not spend these sums in sustaining the Ministry of the word of God, for the benefit of our race, and in laying up treasure in Heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, nor thieves break through and steal. It is the ordination of the Lord, “that they, which preach the Gospel shall live of the Gospel.” For “who goeth a warfare at his own charges? Who planteth a vineyard, and eateth not of the fruit thereof? Or who feedeth a flock, and eateth not of the milk of the flock? Let him that is taught in the word, communication unto him that teacheth in all good things.” And that none should think that contributing to the support of the ministry deserved any praise, the Apostle adds, “If we have sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great thing if we shall reap your carnal things?” Does a man deserve any credit who pays another a just price for the labor which he has done for him? Christians are taught, when they have done all those things, which are commanded them, to say, “We are unprofitable servants; we have done that, which was our duty to do.”
We now proceed to consider the Deacon’s office, concerning which the following Scriptures treat: “Likewise must the deacons be grave” 1 Tim. 3:8. “With the bishops and deacons.” Phil. 1:1 “I commend unto you, Phebe, our sister, which is a servant (deaconess) of the church, which is at Cennchrea – for she hath been a succourer of many, and of myself also” Rom. 16:1,2. The term Deacon is in the original “Diaconos” and means a servant male or female. There are two departments of state service, which the church requires, and for which servants are appointed. These are spiritual and temporal. The Apostles undertook, before the churches were regularly organized, to perform the duties of both these departments, in the church at Jerusalem. But they found it impracticable and therefore desired the church to select seven men, to whom was committed the temporal department, which then consisted of the daily ministration, out of the funds of the pious, to the necessities of the poor. And they (the Apostles) “gave themselves to the word of the Lord and to prayer.” When churches were organized, the only officers appointed for them were bishops and deacons. From the address of Paul to the bishops of the Ephesian church, and of Peter to them generally, we learn, that the oversight of the church was committed to them, and that with this oversight, they were charged with the duty of feeding the flock. Thus it appears, that the spiritual department in the service of the church, is committed to the bishops. To the deacons then, the temporal department of service naturally falls. They are the treasurers and almoners of the church. The specialties, money, property of the church pass into their possession, all which they are to keep and manage according to the direction of the church. The services, that these officers are to render to the church are of vast importance, and hence the high qualifications, which they are required to possess. In the deaconship, as in the bishopric, there was a plurality in the primitive churches, and of course should be in all the churches of the saints.
III. The laws of the church will next engage our attention.
Of these, there are two which are fundamental: “thou shalt love the Lord thy God, with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength, and thy neighbor as thyself.” – For, “Upon these two hang all the law and the prophets.” The second has been enlarged by the Savior: “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another: As I have loved you, that ye also love one another.” John explains the extent of his love: “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” From these two great fundamental laws spring all the others enjoined upon the church as a body, and upon the members as parts of the body. The doctrine of the Lord we are commanded to believe, and the precepts that are enjoined we are also commanded to obey. These are all contained in the holy Scriptures.
The judicial and ceremonial commands were peculiar to the Jews and are not binding on Christians. But whatever is moral is of universal obligation, though we are to look more particularly into the New Testament for the laws by which the church and her members are to be governed. To transcribe these laws would too far exceed the limits and design of this discourse. I must take occasion, however, to observe in this place, that the laws, which the Head of the church has enacted for his people, are binding, and must be obeyed. They are not to be regarded as matters of opinion, or of indifference. We are not at liberty to judge of their propriety, as a reason for obeying or disobeying them, or to explain them away, so that they may be made to suit our convenience. We cannot substitute any others in their place, nor allow any body of men to change them for us. They are absolute, and must be obeyed, or we cannot hope for salvation. This is the teaching of God’s word. “He (Christ) became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him.” Elect according to the foreknowledge of God, through sanctification of the spirit unto obedience.” “Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourself servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?” “What shall be the end of them that obey not the Gospel.” Hence, “To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.” “How readest thou?” then, is the important question with a church and her members. Now, “How feedest thou?” Nor, “How thinkest thou?” The Laws of our Divine Head are to regulate our feelings and our thoughts, and not our feelings and our thoughts to regulate his laws. Hence the necessity of careful study of the Scriptures, that we may know what these Laws are.
IV. We shall now attend to the discipline of the church, by which we mean, not only the dealing with offending members, but the general order of the house of God.
Discipline, in its enlarged sense, imports the whole course of instruction, instituted for the improvement of the disciple, or scholar, and the means for giving effect to that instruction. The Great Teacher has appointed one day in seven, on which is disciples shall assemble together for the purpose of receiving this instruction, and exhorting one another to a profitable use of it. On the same day, they are to attend to the appropriate duties of the House of the Lord. The following Scriptures will assist us on this subject: Our Lord arose from the dead on the first day of the week: Matt. 28, and the same day at even, stood in the midst of his disciples, who were assembled together John 20:19, 26. “And when the day of pentecost was fully come, they (the disciples) were all with one accord in one place.” Acts 2:1. The term pentecost is of Greek origin, and signifies fiftieth. An account of the institution of this day is given in Leviticus, “And ye shall count unto you from the morrow after the Sabbath, and from the day that ye brought the sheaf of the wave offering; even seven Sabbaths shall be complete, even unto the morrow after the seventh Sabbath, shall ye number fifty days, and ye shall offer a new meat offering unto the Lord.” This fiftieth day is the “pentecost,” the morrow after the seventh Sabbath, (the Sabbath of the Jews being on Saturday,) and therefore the first day of the week. In the 20th of Acts, it is said that “Upon the first day of the week, when the disciples were come together to break bread, Paul preached to them.” Acts 20:7. Paul had arrived at Troas on the previous Monday, and yet we read not of the assembling of the disciples there, until seven days after, the first day of the week. It would seem, therefore, that the first day of the week was the stated time for the meeting of the disciples at Troas. In the Epistle to the Corinthians, the Apostle directs, that, “Upon the first day of the week, every one should lay by him in store, as God has prospered him, that there be no gatherings when he came.” 1Cor. 16:2. These contributions were evidently not to be kept by each one laid up at home, but by the church, since, if this were not the case, gatherings would have been necessary on the Apostle’s arrival. The first day of the week appears, then, to have been the stated time of the assembling of the Corinthian Church; and not of that church only, but also of the churches of Galatia, for the Apostle had given to those churches, the same order, that he had given to the church at Corinth.
In the investigation that we have instituted, we have seen, that, wherever the day, on which the churches of Christ met after his resurrection is mentioned, that day is the first day of the week. This day could have superseded the seventh day, given to the Jews as their Sabbath, and been established as the Christian Sabbath, only by Divine Authority. This authority is contained in the commission, “teaching them to observe all things, whatsoever I have commanded you.” If the first day of the week were not to become the stated day of rest, and for the assembling of the churches, how could the apostles teach or sanction its observance? Paul says, “So ordain I in all churches.” 1 Cor. 7:17. And again, “For this cause have I sent unto you, Timotheus, – who shall bring you into remembrance of my ways, which be in Christ, as I teach every where in every church.”
1 Cor. 4:17. The same order was, therefore, taught in all the churches.
We have seen that the first day of the week is the day for the churches to assemble, each in her place of worship. We have seen that, when so assembled, contribution was made for the poor saints, and bread was broken in the Lord’s supper. Let us now prosecute our enquiry into other services to which they attend. We begin with the church at Jerusalem. “And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.” In the midst of the disciples thus met on the first day of the week, Peter preached to the multitude, that was drawn together by the wonders of that day. Three thousand gladly received the words of Peter, and were baptized, and added to the church on the same day. “And they continued steadfastly in the Apostle’s doctrine, in fellowship, in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” These were the services performed in the first church on the first day of the week. From the 12th to the 14th Chapter of the first Epistle to the Corinthians, the Apostle directs the time and order in which the exercise of gifts should be attended to. “If therefore, the whole church be come together into one place – ye may all prophecy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted.” The term Prophet does not only mean one who foretells events, but one also who teaches. That this is its meaning in this place, appears satisfactorily from the ends that are to be accomplished by the speaking of the prophet, viz: The conversion of the unbeliever, and the instruction and comfort of believers; and from the further fact, that others were to judge; which could not be done in relation to an event, foretold under divine influence.
The apostle closes his directions on this subject with these impressive words, “If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things, that I write unto you, are the commandments of the Lord.” 1 Cor. 14:37.
In the case of the incestuous man, Paul gives the following direction to the Corinthian church: “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” This was an act of dealing with an offending member, and to be done when the church was gathered together. Now we have seen, that the time of their gathering together was on the first day of the week. Therefore this is the proper time for such works.
In reviewing what we have said on the discipline or order of the Lord’s House, it appears, that the first day of the week is the time for the assembling of the church, and that when so assembled; the preaching of the Gospel, the exercise of gifts, the receiving of members, the Lord’s supper, contribution for the poor saints, dealing with offending members, prayer, and singing, form her appropriate duties. And as preaching and the exercise of gifts must have their foundation in the Scriptures, it will follow that the reading of the Scriptures will form a part of the duties of the church on the first day. It may be asked are all these binding on the church every Lord’s Day? To this it may be answered, that as they stand upon the same footing, and there is no exception made of any one, they are all obligatory. But if it be impracticable to attend in any one of these duties, that one cannot be binding. For example, if the church have no preacher, they can have no preaching. If none of the members have the gift of teaching or exhortation, she can have no exercise of gifts. If the church have no bread and wine, she cannot have the supper. If the members have not been prospered, she can have no contribution for the poor saints. If there are no applicants for membership, none can be admitted, as if there are no members that offend, none can be dealt with. If she have no Bible, she cannot have the reading of the Scriptures, &c. But if in any of these particulars, she is destitute of ability or means for attending to them, and has the ability and means for attending to the others, I see no reason for neglecting them.
V. We now proceed to the form of government by which the church is to be regulated.
This is the independent or democratic form, with this addition, that Jesus Christ is the Head, King and Law Giver, to whom alone she is amenable. And this is the government prescribed by Him.
In support of this position, we refer to the text, in which the church is made the last resort in the case of our offending member. To this we add the case of the incentuous man, already quoted, in which case the same final reference is made to the church.
Neither the Lord Jesus nor his disciples ever gave any direction for a different form of government and the epistles were written to churches, in their individual character, with instructions to them, to administer their own affairs, without any reference to a tribunal of Delegates from their number, before whom cases should be taken for final decision, or from whom any laws, canons, or decrees should emanate for the better ordering of their constituents. And the reason is manifest. The Scripture is complete, nothing is to be added to, or taken from it. “To the law and the testimony; if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.” “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” “What! Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?” “Ye have an unction from the Holy one, and ye know all things.” “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you.” “The spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you.” With the inspired volume in their hands, their bodies the temples of the Holy Ghost, an unction from the holy one, knowing all things, and the Spirit of Glory and of God resting upon them, what need is there of any councils formed by Delegates from churches to enact any law, canon, or decree for these bodies? Such a council is a body intruding itself into the perfect scheme of the King of Zion. It assumes the province of that glorious King, and invades his prerogative. And the wonder is, that any charge of his would ever consent to be a party to such a palpable invasion of His rights. The utter absurdity of such councils is apparent from the opposite results to which they come. One council decrees one thing, and the next council the opposite. The councils of different Denominations decree those things, which are in direct opposition to each other. The Roman Catholic, the Episcopalian, the Presbyterian, the Methodist, the Independent, and the Baptists, all have a separate order of things. Can all be right? Impossible, when they all differ. The truth is, that the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, being not of this world, is too spiritual, too far out of sight of mortal, erring man, to be submitted to any human councils for decision upon its principles and its requisitions. None but the King himself, and those whom he inspires, are competent to make laws, canons, decrees for his subjects. And he assures us, that his word is so plain that a wayfaring man, though a fool, need not err therein. If He, then, has given a code of laws, so plain that his people need not err in understanding them, why have councils to explain them? If He has constituted his churches independent bodies for accomplishing his purposes, who shall merge them in a council of Delegates, or make ciphers of them, by placing over them a body of men, irresponsible to them, and unknown to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church?
It is readily admitted, that cases do sometimes arise in churches, to which the application of the laws of Christ is difficult. But will this authorize the institution of councils for determining their application in such cases? Surely not. If the Savior knew that such difficulties would occur, and yet made no such provision for their removal, it illy becomes us to make it. It is a reflection upon His wisdom to attempt it. But how shall such difficulties be removed? We answer
1. By a patient, diligent, prayerful searching of the Scriptures for light, and the disposition of mind necessary to apprehend the nature of the case, and the right application of the law that relates to it.
2. By effectual fervent prayer for the influence and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
3. By requesting the presence and aid of the best and wisest members of neighboring churches. Let these come and with the church take council, and engage in prayer. Let their views be given, as counselors, not as judges. And then let the church proceed to the decision of the matter. But let it be done in the exercise of that “love, which is the fulfilling of the law.” For Love after all, is the best casuist. And let there be a solemn reference to what the Scripture teaches. For this purpose, each member of a church should be familiar with the New Testament, “comparing spiritual things with spiritual,” and “do nothing from spite or vain glory.” In such a mode of acting in any case, however difficult, there is more reliance to be placed, than in all the councils of churches, with authority to decide, that the world has seen.
We are aware, that the 15th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, is supposed to contain an example and authority for councils of churches to be formed with authority to act in the government of their constituents. Let us examine the chapter. “And certain men, which came down from Judea, taught the brethren (at Antioch) and said, “Except ye be circumcised, and keep the law of Moses, ye cannot be saved.” “They” (the brethren) determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, unto the Apostles and Elders about this question.” The Apostles and Elders and the whole church at Jerusalem received these brethren and cam together to consider of the matter, and sent back their answer: “The Apostles and Elders, and Brethren, send greeting unto the brethren, which are of the Gentiles in Antioch, and Syria, and Cilica: For as much as we have heard, that certain which went out from us, have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying: ye must be circumcised and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment: – – It seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us, to lay upon you no other burden, than these necessary things; That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication; from which, if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well.” “And as they went through the cities, they delivered them the decrees for to keep, that were ordained of the Apostles and Elders, which were at Jerusalem.” Acts 16:4.
From the above, it appears that certain men went from Judea to Antioch, with pretended authority from the Apostles and Elders of Jerusalem, to teach that the brethren at Antioch must be circumcised and keep the law. The brethren at Antioch being Gentiles were unwilling to receive such instruction, and sent to Jerusalem to enquire if authority had been given to teach such things. The answer is, No. We gave no such commandment to these men. They add what should be done by the churches, and state, that it seemed good to the Holy Ghost to direct them to such things. These things were binding upon the churches, as whatever the Holy Ghost teaches must be authoritative.
In the above case there was no council of churches held by their Delegates. One church sends messengers to ask information on a given subject. The answer is satisfactorily returned, and the instructions of the Holy Ghost are added concerning points of duty, in which all the churches were interested. What assemblage of men, uninspired of God, can now say, “The Holy Ghost puts his seal to the decree which we send you, and you must keep it.” The above case then furnishes neither example or authority for authoritative councils of churches by their Delegates.
It may, then be asked, How are our churches kept together? I answer, By the love of Christ. The love of Christ constrains us, draws us to Him and to one another. No other bond encircles us, as a Body. We acknowledge no authority in Association, Synod, Convention, Ecclesiastical Council, or other body of uninspired men. The Gospel of Jesus Christ knows nothing of an Ecclesiastical council out of the members of the individual church met in their capacity. Our Associations are nothing more than advisory councils, the creatures of the churches, without the shadow of authority. And the less, they have to do with the government of the churches in any way, the better. Their proper sphere is to gather the statistics of the churches; promote the preaching of the Gospel at their meetings; and act as the general committee of the churches in disbursing the funds sent up to them in the Foreign and Domestic departments; in sending the Bible abroad; in the distribution of tracts; and in the education of men called of God to preach the everlasting Gospel by its great author.
A few inferences will close our subject.
1. From what has been said, it will appear that each true church of Jesus Christ is a Spiritual Body, an important part of Christ’s Body. Such a Body originates in benevolence, love to God and man. All its movements must be in accordance with the will of its Head, as a true exponent of that will. To this point, all the principles and precepts of the Gospel lead. Self-denial, liberality, a concern for the glory of God, and the good of man should mark the course of such a Body. A church of Christ is by virtue of her formation, essentially a Bible, Tract, Education, Mission, Society. The diffusion of the Gospel in every practicable way is one specific object of her existence. “To do good and to communicate forget not, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.” “As we have, therefore, opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially to them, who are of the household of faith.” “And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.” “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, for as much as ye know that your labor is not in vain on the Lord.” “Whether therefore ye eat or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.” The greatest means, by which glory can be brought to God, and good done to men, is the preaching of the Gospel, faith in which saves the soul. To the employment of this means, then, the energies of the church should be directed. Gifts for this high office should be sought out, encouraged, prepared and supported, that they may go forth, preaching the Everlasting Gospel.
2. From the form of her government, greater responsibility rests upon the church.
As an individual body, independent of the control of every other body on earth, great responsibility rests upon the church. Each in her respective sphere is thus charged with a solemn duty. She is the moral guardian of that sphere, and is, therefore, bound to let her light shine before others, that they, seeing her good works, may glorify God in Heaven. To her, therefore, these look. In her conduct, they expect to see not only her immediate character, but the character of that Gospel, in which she professes to believe – the power and efficacy of that Redeemer in whom she professes to place all her hope of happiness, here and hereafter. How important the relation, that she bears to those around her. Through her, many may be saved, and through her, many may be lost. How awful her responsibility! Let her take heed then to her duty.
But though, each church is independent in her government of all other churches, yet is she closely united to them all, because of her union to their common Head. She is engaged with them in a common cause, and has an interest in their prosperity. Each church is, therefore, bound to promote the welfare of the rest by all the means in her power. Has one church more wealth than another? Let her empart of her abundance for the relief of her sister that may be in need. Has one church a full supply of gifts? Let her kindly send occasional help to her sister, that is more destitute. For each one is fighting under the same banner, in the same cause, for the same end, and under the same Leader. Hence the duty and pleasure of each helping the other, as opportunity presents, and they will all rejoice together in the same end.
3. From the nature of her government, the church is exposed to two evils, against which she should carefully guard.
1.The first is licentiousness. Having no immediate visible Head, no tangible controlling power on earth, she may suffer her liberty to degenerate, into licentiousness. She may suppose, that, whatever may be her decisions, they are necessarily right, because she is a church of Christ. But nothing can be farther from the truth. The church is made up of imperfect materials. They are liable to error, and it is to be feared are not always as careful in thought, deliberation, and prayer, that they might be preserved from error, as they should be. Christ is to be found of them that seek him, but if any trust to themselves, they need not expect his aid. In so far as a church shall wait upon the Lord, he will guide her most certainly. But that churches may fail to do this, the history of the primitive bodies clearly prove. What awful errors led the Corinthian church astray! How painfully were the Galatians deceived! And what mortifying exhibitions of human weakness are presented by the seven churches of Asia. A church then, should most carefully preserve her liberty, her independence, that her moral power may be felt, and guard against its abuse, lest that power be weakened.
2. Secondly, is indifference to her own interests and those of her Head. With no supervising power to call her to account here, she may grow lax in her duties, and neglect her own true proper affairs, and thus neglect her Lord’s affairs. Conformity to the world may take the place of self-denying devotion to the service of God. Covetousness may freeze up the life blood of liberality, and reduce the body to a cold and frigid company of Demases. So that though there may be a name to live, the body may be dead. Hence the importance of guarding against indifference, lukewarmness, and imbecility.
In conclusion, we remark, that there is great need of our churches bestirring themselves, and of cultivating the spirit of devotion, of liberality, of brotherly love, and active effort in the cause of God; and my earnest prayer is, that they may do this without delay.