SECTION 1.–MORAL CHARACTERISTICS
A Christian Church is an assembly of believers in Christ organized into a body, according to the Holy Scriptures, for the worship and service of God.
The word church, when it occurs in the English New Testament, is, with one exception, the rendering of the Greek word ekklesia. The Greek word, however, sometimes appears in the original text, when it could not, with propriety, be translated church. No one would render Acts xix. 32, “For the church was confused;” or verse 39, “It shall be determined in a lawful church;” or verse 41, “He dismissed the church.” It is hence manifest, that the two words do not precisely correspond to each other in signification.
The meaning of an English word, is ascertained by the usage of the best English authors. By such writers, the word church is often employed to denote religious societies, consisting of persons who, because of the wide extent of territory which they occupy, never assemble in one place for divine worship. The principles on which these societies are formed, are various; their modes of government differ from each other; and they do not agree in the doctrines which they profess. If we should refuse to call any one of these societies a church, the usage of the best English writers might be cited against us; and the usage of such men is the law of the language.
But the disciples of Christ have another law, to which they appeal when they seek direction in forming and organizing churches. This law is contained in the Holy Scriptures. The question then is not, what does the English word church mean, or to what religious societies may the name be applied; but what is a church, according to the teaching of the inspired word.
The Greek word ekklesia denotes an assembly; and is not restricted in its application to a religious assembly. But every reader of the New Testament discovers, that the first Christians were formed into religious assemblies, to which epistles were directed; and which acted, and were required to act, as organized bodies. The word is ordinarily used, in the New Testament, to denote these assemblies; and it is only with this use of the term, that we are at present concerned.
The Greek word denotes an assembly; and, in this particular, differs from the :English word church, which is often used to signify the house in which men assemble for religious worship. The word “churches,” in Acts xix. 37, denotes the temples in which the heathen gods were worshipped; but this is the exception before referred to, in which the Greek word ekklesia does not appear in the original text. This word never denotes the house in which the worshippers assemble. The word synagoge was used, not only for the assembly, but also for the house in which the assembly met; and hence, we read “He hath built us a synagogue.”(1) But the word ekklesia differs from it in this particular. The passage of Scripture which most favors the opinion, that the word was applied to a material edifice, is, “Have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the Church of God, and shame them that have not?”(2) Here an antithesis has been supposed, between the private dwellings of the Corinthian Christians, and their house of public worship. But this interpretation weakens the force of the passage. The word “despise,” like the word “shame” which follows, has persons for its object; and the injurious treatment which it implies, would be far less criminal, if it affected merely the material edifice in which the church assembled.
The word ekklesia, as used by classic Greek authors, signified an assembly. It was used to denote the assembly of the citizens in the democratic towns of Greece, met to decide on matters appertaining to the State. With this use of it, precisely agrees that which is found in Acts xix. 39: “It shall be determined in a lawful assembly.” The multitude there convened, were not a lawful ecclesia. But we learn from the last verse of the chapter, that the word was not restricted in its use to a lawful ecclesia, for it is applied to the very company congregated on this occasion. “He dismissed the assembly.” In the Septuagint, it is the word usually employed to denote the assembly of Hebrew worshippers, called the Congregation of the Lord; but it is also applied to assemblies not organized for religious purposes or business of state.(3) On the whole, therefore, when we meet with the word, we are sure of an assembly, and of nothing else, so far as depends on the word itself.
When we turn to the New Testament, and examine the use of this word in its application to the followers of Christ, we find it for the most part so employed that an assembly is manifestly denoted. “If he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church,” “but if he neglect to hear the church,” &c.(4) The church in this passage, is an assembly, addressed by the party complaining, and addressing the party offending. Frequently the churches have their place of meeting specified, and are hence called the church at Jerusalem;(5) the church at Antioch;(6) the church at Corinth;(7) the church at Ephesus, &c.,(8) and when mention is made of the Christians in a district of country, so large as to render their habitual and frequent meeting for the worship of God impracticable, the term church is not applied to them in the singular number. Hence, we read, “the churches throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria;”(9) the churches of Galatia;(10) the churches of Macedonia;(11) the churches of Asia.(12) It is clear, from these passages, that the term in the singular number, denoted the separate local assemblies in those districts or countries, and not the whole number of Christians inhabiting a kingdom or province. This is further confirmed by the fact, that the meeting of the Christians in the city of Corinth, is called the meeting of the whole Church, if the whole church be come together into one place.(13) If they had been called the church at Corinth, merely as belonging to a class of persons widely scattered through Achaia or the whole world, to whom, contemplated in the aggregate, the name church was given; the phrase “the whole church” would necessarily denote the entire aggregate; and it could not be said with truth that the whole church was assembled, when only the Christians in the city of Corinth formed the assembly.
Further proof that the word denoted a particular or local assembly, appears in this, that the churches are mentioned as distinct from one another. “They ordained elders in every church.”(14) Also in this, that the churches were compared with each other: “For what is it wherein ye were inferior to other churches?”(15) “No church communicated with me as concerning giving and receiving, but ye only.”(16) “As distinct bodies, they sent and received salutations,”(17) and held intercourse by messengers.(18)
By the proof which has been adduced, it is fully established that the word church, in such names as The Church of England, The Church of Scotland, The Presbyterian Church, The Episcopal Church, The Methodist Church, does not correspond in signification with the Greek word ekklesia. These churches never assemble in one place, because their members are dispersed over too large an extent of territory. They are, therefore, not churches in the New Testament sense of the word. It is true that some of these churches have supreme judicatories in which the power of the whole body is supposed to be concentrated; and in these the whole church is conceived to be assembled: thus, the Presbyterian Church has its General Assembly. But whenever the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church is mentioned, the very title indicates that the Assembly is one thing, and the Church another. The Assembly may be seen in some spacious room, transacting the business of the Church; but no one will affirm that the Church itself is literally there; and no one calls the Church itself an assembly. The people of the United States are conceived to be assembled in Congress; and the people of the several states in their several legislative assemblies; but no one understands this to be literally true, and no one calls the people of the United States or of any single state an assembly. But whenever the word ekklesia is used, we are sure of an assembly; and the term is not applicable to bodies or societies of men that do not literally assemble.
In defending the Presbyterian form of church government, it has been argued that the term ecclesia is applied in the New Testament to denote all the Christians in a large city, when their number was so great that they could not all assemble for worship in one place. In a large city of the present day, a single denomination of Christians may have many churches assembling at their several places of worship at the same hour. The same division of the worshipping assemblies, is supposed to have existed in ancient times; and yet, it is remarked, we never read in the New Testament of several churches in one city; and it is inferred that the word ekklesia in the singular number, included in these cases all the separate worshipping assemblies.
Dr. Dick(19) urges the argument just stated, and refers particularly to the church at Jerusalem, and the church at Antioch, as bodies too large for all the members to assemble in one place. It is unfortunate, however, for the argument, that these very churches are expressly declared in the Holy Scriptures to have assembled. Although the disciples in Jerusalem were numbered by thousands, yet, when their number “had multiplied,”(20) the apostles gathered the whole multitude together, and directed them to choose out from among themselves seven men to have charge of the distribution to the poor. And when Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch, after having performed a tour of missionary labor, it is left on record that they gathered the church together, and rehearsed what the Lord had done by them.(21) Against these express declarations of the sacred historian, the conjecture that the number of disciples in these cities was too great to permit them to assemble in one place, is entitled to no consideration.
It is further argued by Dr. Dick, that all the disciples in Jerusalem could not have assembled in one place, because of the persecution to which they were exposed. But an important fact is here overlooked. For a considerable time after the day of Pentecost the Christians had “favor with all the people.”(22) The rulers were opposed to them; but the favor which they had among the people stayed the hand of persecution. While this state of things lasted, they remained one church, one assembly. But when persecution scattered them, they were compelled to hold their assemblies in several places, and they are no longer regarded as constituting one church; but the historian, with strict regard to accuracy of language, calls them “churches.”(23)
If the word ekklesia in the singular number, could denote several distinct assemblies in a large city, no good reason can be assigned why it might not also denote the assemblies of Christians throughout a province or kingdom. But it is admitted that when applied to these, the word is always used in the plural form. All this exactly accords with what was before stated–that the word always assures us of an assembly.
Whether the assembly denoted by the word ekklesia was religious or political, lawful or unlawful, the word itself does not determine. We must look beyond the word itself, to learn the character of the members who composed the churches of the New Testament; and the purpose for which they were associated.
The character of the persons who composed the New Testament churches, may be readily learned from the epistles addressed to them. They are called “The elect of God;”(24) “Children of God by faith;”(25) “Sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints;”(26) “Saints in Christ Jesus ;”(27) “Followers of the Lord;”(28) “Beloved of the Lord.”(29) No doubt can exist that these churches were, in the view of the inspired writers who addressed them, composed of persons truly converted to God.
We may learn the same from the Acts of the Apostles. The first church admitted to membership those who repented and gladly received the word;(30) and the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.(31) Some have preferred to translate the passage last cited, “The Lord added to the church such as were saved.” The former rendering does not so fully determine that the persons added had already undergone a saving change. Neither rendering, however, gives the precise sense of the original, which, by the use of the present participle, describes the salvation as neither future nor past, but in present progress. Men who had entered the way of salvation, and were making progress therein, were added to the church in Jerusalem, and all the members of the church were persons of like character, for the multitude were “of one heart.”(32) When persecution scattered this first church, its dispersed members formed other churches precisely like the parent church in the character of the members. None were admitted but as believers in Christ.
What has been said must not be understood to imply that none but true believers ever entered the primitive churches. We know from the Acts of the apostles, that Ananias, Sapphira,(33) and Simon the Sorcerer,(34) had a place for a time among the true disciples of Jesus; and we know from the apostolic epistles, that false brethren were brought in unawares into the churches.(35) But we are clearly taught that they were considered intruders, occupying a place that did not properly belong to them, and were ejected when their true character became apparent. Although, even in apostolic times, such men obtained admittance into the churches, they crept in unawares,(36) and, therefore, if we would tread in the footsteps of the apostles, we cannot plead their authority for admitting into the churches any who are not true disciples of Christ.
In our definition of a church, we have called it an assembly of believers in Christ. This definition tells what a church is according to the revealed will of God, and not what it becomes by the criminal negligence of its ministers and members, or the wicked craft of hypocritical men who gain admittance into it. When we study the word of God to ascertain what a church is, we must receive the perfect pattern as presented in the uncorrupted precepts of that word, and not as marred by human error and crime.
A church is an organized assembly. The organization cannot be certainly inferred from the mere name. This is supposed to signify, properly, an assembly legally called together or summoned; and the derivation of the word from ekklesia, to call out, accords with this meaning. A legal summons implies obligation to obey it; and the persons who were under this obligation must be supposed to have been bound, not only to assemble, but also to co-operate with one another in the business for which the assembly was convoked. Although the term was sometimes applied to an assembly not legally convened, or a loose and disorderly assembly, yet it commonly signified an assembly of persons bound to act together as a body for some specified object. This is true of the New Testament churches.
The church at Jerusalem is clearly distinguished, in the sacred narrative, from the loose multitude that heard Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost. Many of these became “added to the church;” but the church, it is manifest from the record, was a distinct and separate body, and their union and co-operation are plainly exhibited in the sacred history.
A passage in the first epistle to the Corinthians shows that the church at Corinth was a distinct assembly, not including others who might chance to be present in their meeting: “If the whole church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned or unbelievers.”(37) Had the church been a loose or unorganized assembly, these visiters who came in would have formed a part of it. But the distinction between them and the church is marked and clear. Moreover, the phrase, “If the whole church be come together,” manifestly implies that there was a definite number of persons who were expected to convene, and who, when convened, constituted the entire body. This would not be true of an unorganized assembly. Let it be further noted, that the word ekklesia is here used to denote the body, not as actually assembled, but as a body of which it was possible for some of the members to be absent when others were present. Sometimes the word was used to denote an actual assembly, as in the passage, “When ye come together in the church”(38)–that is, in the assembly or public meeting: but in the phrase, “If the whole church be come together,” the term manifestly applied to the church, not as a body actually assembled, but as organized. Their organization had doubtless a reference to their assembling for the purpose of carrying the design of their organization into effect; and the name ekklesia was given to the body because of its actual assembling, or because the members were obliged to assemble by the terms of their organization.
This distinction in the use of the term, as sometimes denoting an organized body, and sometimes an actual assembly, appears also in the Septuagint. The Congregation of the Lord was an ecclesia, whether actually assembled or not; but, in the phrase, “in the day of the assembly,” the term ekklesia is used to denote the actual assembly that stood before Mount Sinai. This is the meaning of the word in 1 Cor. xiv. 34, “Let your women keep silence in the churches”–that is, in the assemblies, or public meetings. It is added: “For it is a shame for a woman to speak in the church.” This shame does not attach to her as a member of an organized body, but as being in a public assembly.
The English word church always refers to an organized body; but it does not necessarily imply an actual assembly, being very frequently applied to bodies that never actually assemble. On this account, it is not an accurate rendering of ekklesia when this term denotes an actual assembly without reference to organization. Dr. Doddridge has very properly rendered Acts vii. 38: “This is he that was in the assembly in the wilderness.” If this principle of translation were applied throughout the New Testament, and the word church were admitted only when an organized body is intended, something would be gained in respect of perspicuity.
We have not argued the organization of the primitive churches from the mere use of the Greek name ecclesia. The name was appropriately used to denote an organized assembly; but this was not its exclusive signification. Other considerations which have been adduced, prove that the local churches of the New Testament were, in general, organized bodies; but a doubt exists with respect to the churches or assemblies in private houses, of which four cases are mentioned.(39) In those times, houses had not been erected for the special accommodation of Christian assemblies; and meetings for religious worship were doubtless often held in private houses. That in some cases a regularly organized church may have held its stated meetings in a private house, is by no means improbable. But we cannot affirm that every Christian assembly to which the word ecclesia was applied, was a regularly organized church. We may admit that the word assembly would be a more suitable rendering in these cases of meeting in private houses; and yet the proof is abundant that the churches commonly spoken of in the New Testament were organized assemblies.
Each church, as a distinct organization, was independent of every other church. No intimation is anywhere given that the acts of one church were supervised by another church, or by any ecclesiastical judicatory established by a combination of churches. In the direction given by Christ, for settling a difficulty between two members, the aggrieved brother is commanded to report the case to the church, and the action of the church is represented as final. The church at Corinth excommunicated the incestuous person, by its own act and without reference to a higher judicatory. As if to settle the question of church independence, Paul, though possessing apostolic authority, and though he commanded the act to be done, yet required it to be done by the assembled church, as the proper agent for performing the work. Again, when the same individual was to be restored, the action of the church became necessary, and this action completed the deed. In the book of Revelation, distinct messages were sent to the seven churches of Asia. The character and works of each church are distinctly and separately referred to; and the duties prescribed are assigned to each church separately, and that church alone is required to perform them.
The only case in which there is an appearance of appeal to a higher judicatory, is that which is recorded in Acts xv. This was not a case of appeal to a higher judicatory established by a combination of churches, but to the single church at Jerusalem, with the Apostles and Elders; and the decree, when issued, went forth with the authority of the Holy Ghost.
After we have proved that the primitive churches were organized societies, an important question arises, Whether we are under obligation to regulate the church order of the present time in conformity to ancient usage. Was that usage established by divine authority, and designed to be of perpetual obligation; or was the whole matter of order and government left to human prudence? If the primitive churches consisted wholly of baptized believers, are we now at liberty to receive unbelievers and unbaptized persons
If the primitive churches were independent organizations, are we now at liberty to combine many churches in one organization? If the ancient pastors were all equal in authority, are we now at liberty to establish gradations in the pastoral office, and give one minister authority over others?
It must be admitted, that the Scriptures contain very little in the form of direct precept relating to the order and government of churches. But we have no right to require that everything designed for our instruction in duty, should be made known to us only in the way of direct command. Judicious parents give much instruction to their children by example; and this mode of instruction is often more intelligible and more useful than precept. It was made the duty of the apostles to teach their converts whatsoever Christ had commanded, and to set the churches in order. If, instead of leaving dry precepts to serve for our guidance, they have taught us, by example, how to organize and govern churches, we have no right to reject their instruction, and captiously insist that nothing but positive command shall bind us. Instead of choosing to walk in a way of our own devising, we should take pleasure to walk in the footsteps of those holy men from whom we have received the word of life. The actions of a wise father deserve to be imitated by his children, even when there is no evidence that he intended to instruct them by his example. We revere the apostles, as men inspired with the wisdom which is from above; and respect for the Spirit by which they were led, should induce us to prefer their modes of organization and government to such as our inferior wisdom might suggest.
But the Apostles designed that their modes of procedure should be adopted and continued. Paul commended the church at Corinth, because they had kept the ordinances as he had delivered them. Some things which needed further regulation, he promised to set in order when he came; evidently implying that there was an order which ought to be established. Titus, whom he had instructed, he left in Crete,(40) to ordain elders in every city, and to set in order the things that were wanting. To Timothy, he said: “The things which thou hast heard of me, the same commit thou to faithful men who shall be able to teach others also.”(41) As matters of church order formed a part of his own care and action, and a part of what he had committed to Titus, so we must believe that they formed a part of that instruction which he had given to Timothy, to be transmitted by him to other faithful men, and by them to their successors.
The commission which the Lord gave to his apostles, required them to teach the observance of all that he had commanded. Many discourses which he delivered, previous to his crucifixion, are mentioned in the four gospels, without being recorded at length; and he doubtless delivered many others of which no mention is made. In the interviews which he had with the apostles after his resurrection, we are informed that he discoursed with them on the things pertaining to the kingdom of God;(42) and that this subject was so prominently before them, as to induce the inquiry, “Lord, wilt thou at this time again restore the kingdom to Israel?”
They were the chosen and commissioned agents for establishing his kingdom, having been appointed by him to “sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”(43) They were to proceed on the work assigned them, and were now waiting in Jerusalem, until they should be endued with power from on high for its successful prosecution. But what directions he gave them, in the interesting conversations that have not been committed to record, we have no other means of knowing than the precepts and examples which they have left. His parting command and promise were, “Teach them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you; and lo! I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.”(44) This plainly implies that commands had been given to them, which were to be observed to the end of time; and that these were to be learned from their instructions. The organization and government of the churches, which were to hold forth the word of life, and be the golden candlesticks, among which the glorified Jesus was to walk,(45) were matters intimately pertaining to his kingdom; and it cannot be supposed that he gave no instruction respecting them. Whatever he had commanded on these points, the commission required that they should teach men to observe; and the accompanying promise of his presence till the end of the world clearly demonstrates that the observance was to be perpetual. We arrive, therefore, at the conclusion that, whatever the apostles taught, whether by precept or example, had the authority, not only of the Holy Spirit by which they were guided into all truth, but also of their Lord who had commissioned them.
It may be objected, that the example of the apostles is clearly not always to be followed; as, for instance, the conduct of Paul in shaving his head at Cenchrea,(46) in purifying himself at Jerusalem,(47) and in having Timothy circumcised.(48) But how do we know that these acts of Paul are not to be imitated? We learn it from the instruction and example of the same great apostle. He has taught us to distinguish between acts of personal obligation and acts performed from regard to the weakness and prejudice of others. He became all things to all men. To the Jews he became a Jew, that he might gain the Jews. He had Timothy circumcised, because of the Jews which dwelt in that quarter: and the other acts which have been cited were performed in the same accommodation to Jewish prejudice. But when it became necessary to defend the rights and privileges of Gentile converts, he boldly asserted their rights, and strenuously opposed the circumcision of Titus.(49) If, with an humble and teachable spirit, we study the instructions as well as the example of the apostles, we shall find it scarcely possible to err in deciding which of their acts were accommodated to particular circumstances, and which of them are proper examples for our imitation. If any doubt should remain in any particular case, it would be highly rash and criminal, on account of it, to throw away the benefit of apostolic example entirely.
When we have made our deductions from the instruction and example of the apostles, we may use them with great profit to interpret the brief directions which the divine Master himself gave. Twice only, so far as the record states, did he use the word church, during all his personal ministry. In one case, he gave a promise of stability and perpetuity: “Upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” I From this promise we might infer, even if we had not apostolic instruction on the subject, that the church was to be built of durable materials, of living stones, of real saints. In the other case, the Master gave a precept to his disciples, with reference to personal difficulties that might arise among them: “If thy brother shall 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 to the church; but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.” What kind of persons are concerned in the supposed difficulty? They are brethren. The direction was given to the disciples, and the very offender is called “thy brother.” The direction was not designed for a case of injury from persecuting Scribes and Pharisees, but for a case of difficulty between Christian brethren. The second step in the process is thus described: “Take with thee one or two more.” Who are the persons to be taken? Not persecuting Scribes and Pharisees; not strangers who will have no interest in adjusting the difficulty; but beyond all doubt, they were to be other brethren. In the third step it is directed, “Tell it to the ecclesia,” the assembly. What assembly? The assembly of Israel, the Congregation of the Lord, collected from all places to keep their feasts at Jerusalem? The assembly of Jewish worshippers met in a synagogue? Jesus did not direct his disciples to refer their matters of grievances to such arbitrators. Evidently the ecclesia consists of the same kind of persons as those concerned in the preceding steps of the process. It is the assembly of the brethren. The constituents are Christian disciples, and none other. It is the assembly, and not an assembly that might be accidentally convened. The distinctness of the assembly, and to some extent its organization, are here implied. Tell it to the assembly; an assembly actually convened, and capable of being addressed; and not a society scattered through a province or kingdom. “If he will not hear the church.” The ecclesia not only hears, but decides; not only decides, but announces its decision. Here organization is clearly implied, and also right of jurisdiction: “Let him be to thee as an heathen man and a publican.” This proves the decision to be final, and without appeal to a higher judicatory; otherwise the offended brother would be bound to await the issue of such an appeal. Thus we discover, that this admirable passage contains, in its brief dimensions, an epitome of the doctrine concerning church order and discipline, which was more fully developed afterwards in the instruction and example of the apostles. If the divine authority of their instructions were doubtful, these words of Jesus give them his sanction.
While we find proof that the church order established by the apostles, was designed to be perpetuated to the end of time, we do not find either precept or example for the regulation of every minute particular in the doings of a church. Marriage is a divine institution; and the rules given respecting it are obligatory, though much is left to the judgment and pleasure of the parties. So the regulations prescribed in the word of God for the organization and discipline of churches, are all obligatory, though some things are still left for human prudence to determine.
Objection 1.–A community of goods existed in the church at Jerusalem. This was the first church, and was established under the supervision of all the apostles. If primitive usage were obligatory on all succeeding time, a community of goods would be an indispensable part of church order.
We are informed, concerning the members of the first church, “Neither said any of them that aught of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had all things common.”(50) But in this no intimation is given, that any church regulation was established obliging all to give up their private property. The surrender was spontaneous on the part of those who made it. It is not said that the church or the apostles called the possession of each member public property; but the accounting of it public property is attributed entirely to the owner himself. That each member had a full right to retain his property, is evident from the words of the apostle Peter to Ananias, “While it remained, was it not thine own?”(51) The crime of Ananias and Sapphira, was not that they kept back a part of their possessions, but that they lied about it. The clear recognition of their right to retain possession of the whole, is an explicit declaration from the apostle Peter, that a community of goods had not been established by apostolic authority.
If it could be proved that the apostles established a community of goods in the church at Jerusalem, we should be compelled to class the act with those acts of Paul before noticed, which were the result of peculiar circumstances. In the churches which were afterwards organized, we know that the distinction of rich and poor existed, and that the members were expected to contribute according to what they had. The possession of private property is unquestionably implied; and the apostles, who had the care of all the churches, if they had designed to make a community of goods a permanent arrangement in the churches, would not have permitted a necessary part of church order on a matter of great importance to be wholly neglected.
The circumstances of the church at Jerusalem were peculiar. From that church the gospel was sounded forth through all the world. It was regarded by Paul as having a claim on the carnal things of churches subsequently formed, in return for the spiritual things communicated. The liberality of that church in its contributions to sustain the cause of Christ was extraordinary, because the circumstances were extraordinary; and an extraordinary claim to remuneration for having impoverished themselves in support of the cause was founded on it. Paul commended the liberality of the churches of Macedonia, because “to their power, and beyond their power” they had contributed to the Lord’s cause.(52) Jesus commended the liberality of the poor widow who threw all her living into the Lord’s treasury. So the liberality of the church at Jerusalem was pleasing to the apostles, and also to the Lord; and the more pleasing, because it was a free-will offering, and not extorted by any church order which the apostles had established.
Objection 2.–The church order which you profess to deduce from the Scriptures, does not agree with that which, according to ecclesiastical history, prevailed in the times that followed the age of the apostles. There is reason, therefore, to suspect that your deductions are erroneous.
In attempting to learn from ecclesiastical history what usages prevailed in the apostolic churches, there is danger of error from two causes: the writers of ecclesiastical history were uninspired men, and therefore fallible; and the churches of the times after the apostles, may have departed from the order first instituted Neither of these causes of error can mislead us in the course of investigation which we have pursued. The writers on whom we rely were inspired; and the churches concerning which we have inquired, were the first and purest, organized by the apostles under the infallible guidance of the Holy Ghost. Moreover, we have the assurance of inspired authority, that the Scriptures are sufficient to render the man of God perfect, thoroughly furnished unto every good work. If every duty appertaining to church order cannot be learned from the Scriptures, they have not the sufficiency and perfection which Paul ascribed to them. If ecclesiastical history can make any suggestion that will assist us in fairly interpreting the Scriptures, we may thankfully accept its aid. But if it goes beyond the Scriptures, it leaves divine authority behind it; and if it opposes the Scriptures, we must reject it, lest we make void the law of God through our traditions.
But ecclesiastical history says nothing that can lead us to suspect the accuracy of our deductions from Scripture. On the contrary, the nearer we ascend with it to the time of the apostles, the more exact is the agreement which it exhibits between the order of the churches, and that which we have ascertained from the Scriptures to have been established by Christ and his apostles.
The following quotations from Gieseler’s Ecclesiastical History will suffice to show the gradual progress of infringement on the original church order, with respect to the independence of the churches, the equality of the pastors, and the right of the people to elect their church officers. The historian considers it a progress of improvement, rendering the churches “better organized and united ;” but we think it a progress towards popery.–
“The influence of the bishops increased naturally with the increasing frequency of synods, at which they represented their churches. Country churches which had grown up around some city, seem with their bishops to have been usually in a certain degree under the authority of the mother-church. With this exception, all the churches were alike independent, though some were especially held in honor on such grounds as their apostolic origin, or the importance of the city in which they were situated.”–A. D. 117, 193.(53)
“We have seen that the sphere of individual influence amongst the bishops was gradually enlarging, many churches in the city and its vicinity being united under one bishop, a presbyter or a country bishop presiding over them. But we have now to speak of a new institution, at first found chiefly in the east, which had the effect of uniting the bishops more intimately amongst themselves. This was the Provincial Synod, which had been growing more frequent ever since the end of the second century, and in some provinces was held once or twice a year. …By these associations of large ecclesiastical bodies, the whole church became better organied and united.”–A. D. 193, 324.(54)
” When once the idea of the Mosaic priesthood had been adopted in the Christian church, the clergy soon began to assume a superiority over the laity. …The old customs, however, were not yet entirely done away. Although the provincial bishops exercised a very decided influence in electing a metropolitan, the church was not excluded from all share in the choice.”–A. D. 193, 324.(55)
Objection 3.–God has in other cases unfolded his plans of operation gradually; and it is at least probable, that, in planting the church, the principles of church order were incorporated in the organization seminally, to be developed afterwards in the progress of Christianity. It is, therefore, improper to take for our model, the first embryo of the church.
God has been pleased to unfold the plan of his grace gradually. The first revelation of it in the garden of Eden, was exceedingly obscure; but, like the dawn of day, the light continued to increase, until at length the Sun of righteousness arose, and the full revelation of the gospel was given to mankind. This progress was made by new light from heaven. From time to time were added new revelations from God, through inspired men, whom he commissioned to make known his will. Now, if the principles of church order, inculcated by Christ and his apostles, were left too imperfect for our guidance, the analogy suggests that the additional disclosure which is needed, ought to come down from above. But the objection does not claim, and no one will pretend, who does not claim infallibility for the church, that the progressive change made in church order, was directed by inspired men. What Christ and the apostles planted, could not possibly receive any further improvement, unless God gave the increase; and since we have no proof that the increase was from God, we may fear that men marred the Lord’s work, instead of mending it.
In the developments which God makes of his plans of operation, the progress is ever towards perfection: but in the change of church order, to which the objection refers, the progress terminated in the revelation of the Man of Sin. All the steps in the progress tended to this full disclosure. If the wisdom which directed it was from above, we ought to follow its entire guidance. The doctrine of church infallibility must be admitted, and we must take it in all its consequences. The doctrines and practices of the Roman church, however contrary to the word of God, must be taken as developments of the seminal truth which the Bible contains. If we are not willing to go all this length, where shall we stop? Is there a point in the progress of the church, at which it attained its highest perfection, and from which it sunk into the depths of the papal apostasy? If so, how can we ascertain which this point was? If the word of God does not tell us, and if we have no infallible church to tell us, we are left in the dark on this important subject. The only escape from this darkness, is, by flight to the sure word of prophecy, to which we do well to take heed as unto a light that shineth in a dark place.
But were the changes of church order which took place, a development of principles inculcated by Christ and his apostles? If Christ forbade his disciples to call any man master, and constituted them all brethren–is prelacy, or the Roman hierarchy, a development of the principle which he inculcated? If he made final the decision of an ecclesia of the brethren, to which an injured brother might tell his grievance–is the establishment of appellate tribunals a development of his principle? If he established a converted church-membership–is not the admission of unconverted members, a corruption rather than a development of his principle? The progress of the divine development is towards that ultimate state, in which the wicked will be completely and for ever separated from the righteous. His destruction of the old world by a flood, from which righteous Noah was preserved, was a step in this development. After corruption and idolatry had again prevailed, another step was taken, in the call of Abram from his kindred, and the removal of him to a different land in which his descendants were to be a separate nation, maintaining a purer religion. Another separation was made, when John the Baptist preached, “Think not to say within yourselves, we have Abraham to our father;” “The axe is laid unto the root of the trees;” “Whose fan is in his hand,” bc. From that time, a converted church membership was established, which was to be separate from the world, though not removed out of the world. The next step will be, its complete and final separation. Now, after Christ, with his forerunner and apostles, has established a converted church-membership, the admission of unconverted members is a step, not in the direction of God’s progressive development, but in a direction backward. Instead of leading to a more perfect state, it leads back to that state which it was a grand aim of John’s ministry to alter.
Objection 4.–The mode of church organization and government, which you profess to have deduced from the Scriptures, is not wise, and, therefore, cannot be from God.
The consideration of this objection will be reserved for Chapter X., Section I.
Every man, as an accountable creature, is bound to worship and serve God; but to render this worship and service apart from all his fellow-creatures, would not accord with his social nature. Many acts of devotion and obedience may be performed more advantageously and more acceptably, by companies of men, than by each man separately. Prayer is acceptable to God, though poured forth from a solitary heart excluded from all the world, and unknown to all the world: but a special promise is recorded in word of God, for the encouragement of united prayer. Union tends to strengthen our faith, and warm our devotions; and the united petition rises with more acceptance to the ear of him who hears and answers prayer. Churches are companies of men who assemble for united prayer. The first church prayed fervently and effectually, when the number of their names was one hundred and twenty;(56) and they continued in prayer when their number was increased to thousands.(57) When Peter was in prison, prayer was made for him by the church.(58) Praise also is acceptable to God, though offered in secret; but when Paul and Silas sang praises unto God in the prison,(59) their companionship strengthened their hearts, and gave increased sweetness and power to their music. United praise entered largely into the worship of the ancient temple; and the members of Christian churches are enjoined to speak to one another in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in their hearts to the Lord.(60) The duty and acceptableness of church praise, may be inferred from the words, “In the midst of the church will I sing praise unto Thee.”(61) The commemoration of Christ’s death in the breaking of bread, is an ordinance committed to the churches. The disciples at Troas, and at Corinth, assembled for this purpose. By the union of Christians, greater efficiency is given to efforts for the spread of the gospel. Hence from the churches sounded out the word of the Lord. Association in public assemblies, gives opportunity for the spiritual instruction, which Christ commanded in the commission given to his ministers; and for the members of the church to promote each other’s spiritual interests by mutual exhortation. Accordingly Paul enjoins: “Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together, but exhort one another; and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.”(62) These are among the important purposes, for which it is the will of God that believers in Christ should form themselves into churches.
SECTION II.–CEREMONIAL QUALIFICATION FOR MEMBERSHIP
Baptism is a prerequisite to membership in a local church.
The considerations presented in chapter 1, section 4, determine the proper position of baptism in the course of Christian obedience. It stands at the head of the way. In this act, the believer gives himself to God, before he gives himself to the people of God, to walk with them in church relation. The duties connected with church-membership are included among the commands which are referred to in the commission, and which are to be taught after baptism. The members of every Christian church must profess subjection to Christ. They cannot walk together in obedience to his commands, unless they are agreed on this point. As profession is necessary to church-membership, so is baptism, which is the appointed ceremony of profession. Profession is the substance, and baptism is the form; but Christ’s command requires the form as well as the substance. In reading the Scriptures, it never enters the mind that any of the church-members in the times of the apostles were unbaptized. So uniformly was this rite administered at the beginning of the Christian profession, that no room is left to doubt its universal observance. The expression, “As many of you as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ,”(63) I might in some other connection suggest that all had not been baptized. But it follows the declaration, “Ye are all the children of God by faith in Jesus Christ,” and is added to prove the proposition; but it could not prove that all were in the relation specified, if the phrase, “as many as,” signified only some. The same phrase is used by Gamaliel, where all are intended: “And all, as many as obeyed him, were scattered.”(64) The same phrase, with the same meaning, is used in Rom. vi. 3: “So many of us as were baptized into Christ, were baptized into his death.” Paul argues from this, the obligation of all to walk in newness of life. It follows, therefore, that all the members of the Galatian churches, and of the church at Rome, were baptized persons; and the same must be true concerning all the primitive churches. We conclude, therefore, that the authority of Christ in the commission, and the usage established by the apostles, give baptism a place prior to church membership.
Many unbaptized persons give proof that they love God, and are therefore born of God, and are children in his spiritual family. If they belong to Christ, it may be asked, why may they not be admitted into his churches? That there are such persons among the unbaptized, we most readily grant; for such persons, and such only, are entitled to baptism. To every such person, an apostle of Christ would say, “And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized.” We have not the authority of apostles, but we have the words of Christ and the apostles in our hands; and we owe it to our unbaptized Christian brother, to tell him, by their authority, his proper course of duty.
Objection 1.–Many good men do not understand the words of Christ and the apostles as we do, and consequently do not obey in this particular; yet they give satisfactory evidence, in other ways, that they love God, and conscientiously obey him. Paul says: “Him that is weak in the faith, receive ye;” and he urges, as a reason for receiving him, that “God has received him.” Now, if we have satisfactory proof that God has received an unbaptized Christian brother, we are bound to receive him.
We admit the obligation to receive such a brother, but not in any sense that requires an abandonment or neglect of our own duty. We ought not to despise the weak brother. We ought not, by our knowledge, to cause the weak brother to perish. We ought to receive him into our affections, and endeavor to promote his best interests; but if he, through his weakness, disobeys God in any particular, our love for him degenerates into weakness, if it induces us to disobey also. We owe nothing to a weak brother which can render it necessary for us to disobey God. If a weak brother feels himself reproved when we yield our personal obedience to the Lord’s command, we are not at liberty to neglect the command, for the sake of keeping the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. As I am bound to exercise my affection for a weak brother in such a manner as not to neglect my duty, so is a church. Every church owes its first obligation to Christ, and is bound to regulate its organization and discipline in obedience to Christ’s command. If, by strict adherence to the divine rule, we cannot secure the co-operation of a weak brother, we must do our duty, and leave the result to God. Nothing in the law of church organization forbids the receiving of a brother into membership, who is weak in the matter of eating herbs, the case to which Paul refers. But if a church be required, for the accommodation of a weak brother, to give up the principles of organization learned from Christ, and adopt others, she owes it to Christ, and to the weak brother himself, firmly to refuse.
Objection 2.–If baptism is a prerequisite to church-membership, societies of unbaptized persons cannot be called churches; and the doctrine, therefore, unchurches all Pedobaptist denominations.
Church is an English word; and the meaning of it, as such, must be determined by the usage of standard English writers. Our inquiry has been, not what this English word means, or how it may be used. We have sought to know how Christ designed his churches to be organized. This is a question very different from a strife about words to no profit. In philological inquiries, we are willing to make usage the law of language; and we claim no right, in speaking or writing English, to annul this law. But our inquiry has not been philological. We have not been searching English standard.writers, to know how to speak; but the Holy Bible, to know how to act. Even the Greek word ecclesia was applied to assemblies of various kinds; and we are bound to admit the application of it to an assembly of unbaptized persons, solemnly united in the worship of God. But we have desired to know how an ecclesia, such as those to which Paul’s epistles were addressed, was organized; and we have investigated the subject as a question of duty, and not of philology. The result of our investigation is, that every such ecclesia was composed of baptized persons exclusively.
SECTION III.–FALSE PROFESSORS
The disciples of Christ, in obeying their Master’s command to love one another, are liable to mistake the proper objects of the love enjoined. Men who have not the Christian spirit, frequently assume the Christian name; and, since none but God can search the heart, such men frequently obtain admittance among the followers of Christ, and are for a time reckoned true disciples. For wise reasons, some of which we are able to comprehend, Christ did not pray that his people should be taken out of the world. Though the relation which they sustain to the men of the world is often an occasion of painful trial, it gives an opportunity for duties that are profitable to themselves and to mankind, and honorable to God. In like manner, their relation to false professors, gives occasion for the exercise of patience and forbearance, and of careful self-examination.
Local churches possess external organization; and in this organization, human agency is employed. Men unite in it, on the principle of mutual recognition of each other as disciples of Christ. Since God has not endowed the members of a church with the power to search the heart, it is possible for persons, whose hearts have not been sanctified by the Holy Spirit, to obtain admission into a local church. It is not Christ’s law that such persons should be received; but they obtain admittance through the fallibility of those to whom the execution of the law has been intrusted.
Since every church on earth has probably one or more false professors in it, and since Christ has not authorized the admission of false professors, it may be questioned whether, strictly speaking, there is a Christian church on earth. But it may be questioned, with equal propriety, whether any individual man should be called a Christian, since no man is fully conformed to the law of Christ. Some, on the other hand, have thought that because no church on earth is perfectly free from false professors, it is folly to aim at a perfect church. But we may, with equal propriety, charge any individual man with folly who is striving after personal perfection. The duty of every individual is, to press toward the mark, for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus; and the duty of every church, and of every church-member, is, to strive in every lawful way for church perfection. Though full perfection may not be attained, yet approach to it sufficiently rewards our continual effort; and, apart from all respect to reward, we are obliged to this course, by the command of Christ.
It may be objected, that if the Lord had designed the churches to be free from false professors, he would not have committed the management of them to fallible men. We may grant that it was not God’s purpose to preserve the churches free from false professors by the exertion of his omnipotence. Had this been his purpose, it would not have failed to be accomplished. But, as in other parts of God’s moral government, responsible agents are employed who have laws prescribed, which as free agents they may or may not obey. The fact that the law is not obeyed, disproves neither its perfection nor its obligation.
But the objection may be presented in another form. The failure of a church to keep out false professors, does not necessarily arise from moral delinquency in its members; it may be wholly owing to the unavoidable fallibility of human judgment. Since their failure is not criminal, it is not a violation of divine law; and, therefore, the divine law does not provide for a perfectly pure church.
The objection in this form would be embarrassing, if the church which admits a false professor, were the only party concerned in the transaction. But the false professor himself is a party, and the most responsible party. He does not love Christ; and this want of love not only unfits him for a place in the church, but is criminal. He is certainly in fault; and it too often happens that the members of the church are also in fault. Were they less conformed to the world, the distinction between Christians and men of the world would be more apparent, and fewer cases of mistake in the reception of members would occur. Churches are often criminally careless, both in the reception of members, and in the discipline of them when received. If the piety of churches were very fervent, men of cold hearts could not remain happy among them, and could not continue to have their true character concealed.
The possession of love to Christ is required of every one who seeks admission into a Christian church. The members who admit him are required to demand a credible profession made in obedience to Christ’s command. Beyond this they cannot go, and here their responsibility ceases. But in every case in which a false professor is admitted, the law of Christ is violated by one or both of the parties.
1. Luke vii. 5.
2. 1 Cor. xi. 22.
3. Ps. xxvi. 5; Judith vi. 16; xiv. 6.
4. Matt. xviii. 17.
5. Acts viii. 1.
6. Acts xiii. 1.
7. 1 Cor. i. 2.
8. Rev. ii. 1.
9. Acts ix. 31.
10. Gal. i. 2; 1 Cor. xvi. 1.
11. 2 Cor. viii. 1.
12. 1 Cor. xvi. 19.
13. 1 Cor. xiv. 23.
14. Acts xiv. 23.
15. 2 Cor. xii. 13.
16. Phi. iv. 15.
17. Rom. xvi. 16; 1 Cor. xvi. 19.
18. 2 Cor. viii. 23.
19. Theology, 96, 98.
20. Acts vi. 1,2.
21. Acts xiv. 27.
22. Acts ii. 47.
23. Acts ix. 31.
24. Col. iii. 12.
25. Gal. iii. 26.
26. 1 Cor. i. 2.
27. Phil. i. 1.
28. 1 Thes. i. 6.
29. 2 Thes. ii. 13.
30. Acts ii. 39, 41.
31. Acts ii. 47.
32. Acts iv. 32.
33. Acts v. 1.
34. Acts viii. 13.
35. Gal. ii. 4.
36. Jude 4.
37. 1 Cor. xiv. 23.
38. 1 Cor. xi. 18.
39. Rom. xvi. 5; 1 Cor. xvi. 19; Col. iv. 15; Philem. 2.
40. Titus i. 5.
41. 2 Tim. ii. 2.
42. Acts i. 3.
43. Matt. xix. 28.
44. Matt. xxviii. 20.
45. Rev. i. 20.
46. Acts xviii. 18.
47. Acts xxi. 26.
48. Acts xvi. 3.
49. Gal. ii. 3.
50. Acts iv. 32.
51. Acts v. 4.
52. 2 Cor. viii. 1, 3.
53. P. 102.
54. P. 152.
55. P. 156.
56. Acts i. 14, 24.
57. Acts ii. 42; iv. 24.
58. Acts xii. 5.
59. Acts xvi. 25.
60. Eph. v. 19.
61. Heb. ii. 12.
62. Heb. x. 25.
63. Gal. iii. 27.
64. Acts v. 36.