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A Spiritual, or Regenerate, Church Membership.


A spiritual, or regenerate, church membership, as already stated, lies at the foundation of all Baptist peculiarities. On this point, Baptists and the few small sects that agree with them differ from the whole Christian world. If numbers were an infallible sign of truth, we should be constrained to abandon our principles. But they are not. On this supposition, Protestantism would be compelled to yield to Romanism, and Christianity itself to paganism. The oracles of God are the only infallible test of truth. To these we appeal.

The Israelitish theocracy, or commonwealth, differed widely from the Christian church, or, more properly, churches. That institution?a politico-religious organization?consisted only of the descendants of Abraham, in the line of Jacob, or Israel, with such foreigners as chose, by submission to a painful and bloody rite, to become incorporated with the nation. Citizenship in the commonwealth was hereditary, and was maintained, not by regeneration and a life of piety, but by the observance of various costly rites. The government was designed and admirably adapted to preserve the nation from commingling with the neighboring heathen. To the Israelites were committed the oracles of God and the honor of maintaining his worship amid the gloom of surrounding idolatry. From that favored race the Messiah was to descend, in whom all nations were to be blessed.

In the fullness of time, Jesus of Nazareth made his appearance. He claimed to be the promised Messiah, and confirmed his title to the office by the wisdom of his words and the number and greatness of his miracles. He came, not to establish or to modify the "commonwealth of israe1," but to introduce a new dispensation, or order of things. After a brief, but most instructive, ministry, terminating in his sacrificial death, he endowed his apostles with plenary inspiration and the power of working miracles, and entrusted to them the duty of carrying into effect his gracious and sublime mission.

In the execution of the plan, the apostles organized churches, first in Judea, then in Samaria and Galilee, and afterwards among the heathen nations throughout the Roman empire. These churches were not a continuation of the Jewish hierarchy. They differed from it widely in members, doctrine, rites, worship, and discipline. No man was entitled to a place in a Christian church because of his connection with a synagogue. Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, could not share in the blessings of the new kingdom without regeneration. Under the changed order of things, circumcision, which was a passport to the privileges of the synagogue, availed nothing. All the rites and ceremonies of the Levitical economy were abolished under the new dispensation. The truth, which had been symbolically and dimly revealed to the Jews, was clearly taught in the churches. Repentance, faith, regeneration, were conditions of admission to their fellowship, and holy lives were essential to its continuance. Instead of the blood sacrifices of the Jews, the churches offered up "spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ." in fine, the commonwealth of Israel was a hierarchy; but the churches are voluntary associations. That was typical, preparatory, and temporary; these are spiritual and permanent.

Having made these general remarks, we will now proceed to prove their correctness. John the Baptist, the morning star of the new dispensation, was an eminent reformer. He preached repentance and the necessity of godly lives, laid the axe at the root of the trees which did not bear good fruit, and proclaimed that descent from Abraham, which secured all the benefits of Judaism, would avail nothing under the reign of the Messiah. He baptized the penitent for the remission of sins; but he organized no church among his disciples. His mission was to prepare the way of the Messiah, by awaking an expectation of his coming, making ready a people to receive him, and introducing him into his public ministry; and, having done these things, his work was ended (Matthew 3:1-12; Mark 1:1-11; Luke 3:2-22; John 3:28-31).

The personal ministry of Jesus was preparatory to the constitution of churches. His preaching was eminently searching, and fitted to reform men and make them spiritual and devout; but during his life no church was organized, and his disciples were subject to no discipline, and their labors, except so far as they were directed by his personal attention, were without concert.

On the day of Pentecost. after the ascension of Jesus, the apostles, by the descent of the Holy Spirit, were fully qualified to carry forward and complete the work that John and Jesus had begun. The first church was formed in Jerusalem, and this soon became the mother of other churches in various countries. We have at present no concern with them, but to show that they were composed exclusively of believers?converts to Christianity?or persons who made a credible profession of piety. The mother church was clearly a spiritual one. The 120 disciples who held a continuous prayer meeting in Jerusalem were its nucleus (Acts 1:14, 15). To these were added 3,000 believers on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41). Additions were daily made to the church, but only of such as were saved (v. 47). To this company was added Joses, surnamed Barnabas, who signalized his conversion by his liberality to the cause of Christ (Acts 4:36, 37). After the death of Ananias and Sapphira, the ungodly were deterred from joining the church; "but believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women" (Acts 5:13, 14). After the appointment of deacons, "The word of God increased, and the number of disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith" (Acts 6:7). This was the true church. Are we not justified in affirming that it was composed of believers, and of believers only? There is not the slightest trace in the copious inspired record that, in this large, primitive, model church, there were unconverted seekers, or infants or hereditary members. The church was organized under the immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit and according to the will of Christ, and we have a full and infallible account of its membership, for the instruction of church builders in all ages. Is it possible that, on the Pedobaptist theory of church construction, there should have been no reference to its infant members? Among the thousands of believers added to the church, did none claim the covenant blessing for their children? Or did the faithful historian fail to mention so important a fact? Can anybody believe that, if Pedobaptists were favored with such a wonderful increase of members, their account of it would contain no allusion to the reception of the infant offspring of the converts into the church?

Had we no other proof that the primitive churches were composed exclusively of believers, the history of the church at Jerusalem should fully satisfy us on that point. It is perfectly fair to conclude that all the churches were conformed, in their membership, as in other things, to the mother church. On this point, however, evidence is ample, ?1?he second church was probably organized in Samaria. We have not so full an account of its constitution as we have of that at Jerusalem, but quite enough to guide us to a right conclusion. After the persecution of the disciples consequent on the death of Stephen, "Philip went down to Samaria and preached Christ unto them." Many of the Samaritans gave heed to his words and were joyfully converted. "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" (Acts 8:12). We have no definite account of the organization of the church, but there can be no reasonable doubt that these believing men and women were its constituent members. Children were not among the baptized, nor can we reasonably suppose that they were admitted into the church.

In the Acts of the Apostles, covering a period of more than thirty years, and recording the labors of the apostles and their assistants in founding and edifying churches in a large part of the Roman empire, there is not the slightest evidence, or shadow of evidence, except that supposed to be furnished by household baptisms, (which will be hereafter examined), that any persons were admitted to membership in the churches except on a credible profession of faith, or retained in them, by apostolic sanction, without lives in harmony with their profession.

The proof furnished by the apostolic epistles in favor of the spiritual membership of the primitive churches is quite as conclusive as that drawn from their inspired history. Let us briefly examine it.

Paul addressed his first epistle in the canon, "To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints," and thanked God that their faith was "spoken of throughout the world" (Rom. 1:7, 8). If the church contained other members, either adults or infants, the fact does not appear in the long letter. Human ingenuity has not been able to find in all its chapters a single allusion, or shadow of allusion, to any other than a regenerate membership.

The next epistle in course was directed by the apostle "Unto the church of God in Corinth"; but, that there might be no mistake as to its membership, he adds. "to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints" &c. (1 Cor. 1:2). The second epistle was addressed by Paul and Timothy, "Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, with all the saints which are in all Achaia" (2 Cor. 1:1). We think that it is impossible to find in these letters, copious as they are in instruction, the slightest sanction of an unregenerate church membership.

The next epistle was addressed by Paul, not to a single church, but to the churches of the large province of Galatia. "Grace be to you and peace," he said, "from God the Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ." The apostle did not use such language as this to the unconverted. Only believers are the recipients of grace and peace. Of the unbelieving his language was: "if any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be anathema maranatha." We can find in this epistle no trace of infant church membership.

We must abridge our labors on this point. The epistle to the Ephesians was addressed "to the saints which are at Ephesus, and to the faithful in Christ Jesus" (Eph. 1:1). The letter to the Philip-plans was directed "to all the saints in Christ Jesus" &c. (Phil. 1:1). The epistle to the Colossians was addressed "to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ which are at Colosse" (Col. 1:2).

if there were unconverted seekers or infants in the apostolic churches, is it not strange and inexplicable that the apostle in his epistles should have taken no notice of them? They must have constituted a large and important part of the churches. Many questions must have arisen concerning the relations which they bore to the churches and the responsibilities arising from them. Were they members in full fellowship or only nominal members? Were they entitled to partake of the Lord?s supper? Were they subject to discipline as other members? Should they be formally expelled from the churches, if they furnished no evidence of piety? if they ceased to be members by lack of piety, at what age and under what circumstances did their membership terminate? These and similar questions have greatly perplexed modern Pedobaptists. Is it possible that these difficulties should not have arisen in the primitive churches, if they contained infant members? How is it to be explained that the Spirit of inspiration, so full of light and love, left the churches in utter ignorance on questions so vitally affecting their interests?

All these difficulties are obviated and all these questions are explained by a spiritual church membership. The primitive churches were composed of believers, and of believers only, and all the facts recorded in the inspired history and all the instructions in the inspired epistles are in perfect harmony with this fundamental principle of church organization.

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