committed to historic Baptist & Reformed beliefs









      The word ecclesia, which is usually translated church in the New Testament, has different meanings in the Holy Scriptures.

      1. It is used to signify the whole collective body of real Christians, or true believers, throughout the world.

      2. It denotes a particular religious society, located in some city, town, or country, united by mutual consent, and meeting together for the worship of God, in the way and manner prescribed in the gospel by Jesus Christ, its adorable author.

      First. The word church is used to signify the whole number of real Christians, or true believers throughout the world.

      In this large and extensive sense we find the word used in the following places:

      "And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Mt 16:18).

      "For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews' religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it" (Ga 1:13).

      "And hath put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be the head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all" (Eph 1:22,23).

      "Unto Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen" (Eph 3:21).

      "And He [Christ Jesus] is the head of the body, the church" (Col 1:18).

      "To the general assembly and church of the first-born, which are written in heaven" (Heb 12:23). [13]

      To these passages many more might easily be added; but it is deemed unnecessary.

      I observe,

      Second. The term church is very frequently used in Scripture to denote a distinct society of saints, or a certain number of true believers, voluntarily associated together, and meeting with each other in some particular place for the dispensation of divine ordinances, according to the manner prescribed in the Word of God.

      The first Christians of any given place were usually and uniformly joined together into one religious society, which society or congregation of Christians constituted the church of God in that place. Hence, we never read of more than one church in any one place. And this accounts for the peculiar manner in which the saints in different places are commonly spoken of in the New Testament.

      Those saints residing in any one place, forming a religious society, are always addressed, or spoken of, in the singular number; whereas, those of a kingdom, province, district, or region of country, and those in different cities and towns, forming different societies, are usually mentioned in the plural number. As, for instance, Paul, when writing to the saints at Corinth, said:

      "Unto the church of God which is at Corinth," &c. (1Co 1:2). There was also at church at Cenchrea, a port of Corinth, distinct from the church of that city.

      "I commend unto you Phoebe our sister, which is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea" (Ro 16:1).

      In the same manner, the Christian societies of many other places are spoken of, as the following texts plainly show.

      "And when they were come [to Antioch], and had gathered the church together, they rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how He had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles" (Ac 14:27).

      "Paul and Silvanus, and Timothy, unto the church of the Thessalonians which is in God our Father, and in the Lord Jesus Christ" (1Th 1:1). [14]

      "Unto the angel of the church at Ephesus write," &c. (Re 2:1).

      On the other hand, when the Christians of a province, or those residing in different cities, are spoken of, the plural word churches is used, because they composed various societies.

      Thus when St. Paul wrote to the Galatians, that is, to the believers scattered throughout that region of country, and constituting different societies, he said:

      "Unto the churches of Galatia," &c. (Ga 1:2).

      When speaking of the different communities of saints in Judea he says: "I was unknown by face unto the churches of Judea which were in Christ" (Ga 1:22).

      The same phraseology, or peculiar form of expression, is used in the following Scriptures. And to avoid tediousness, I will only quote a few among many recorded in the New Testament.

      "And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed" (Ac 14:23).

      "Then had the churches rest throughout all Judea, and Galilee, and Samaria, and were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied" (Ac 9:31).

      "I robbed other churches, taking wages of them, to do you service" (2Co 11:8).

      "What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia" (Re 1:11).

      These remarks I think to be quite sufficient to show the true sense or signification of the term church. It is very generally used by the sacred writers as we have here defined it. And in its appropriated application to a religious use, it has not intermediate sense between a single congregation and the whole community of Christians. However, it may not be improper here to take notice of a few other quotations attached to the word church, different from either of the aforementioned. [15]

      In Ac 7:28, it means the congregation of the Jews, which formerly were the church and people of God.

      Again, in Ac 19:32,39 it denotes a concourse or multitude of people assembled together. It is translated in both verses assembly. In a civil application of the term, it usually meant among the ancients an assembly of any description, whether lawful or unlawful, called out or associated together.

      Besides these, I know not that it has any other meaning in the Holy Scriptures.

      Howbeit, there are persons who contend that it has.

      Some think it means the officers or rulers of a church. Accordingly, we find the Romanist applies it to the Pope, or Pope and Cardinals in conclave assembled. The Episcopalian, to a general council, composed of the clergy, with the Bishop at their head. The Presbyterian, to the Session, or the Presbytery, or the Synod, or the General Assembly, with their presiding moderators. In like manner, it is applied by other denominations of professing Christians.

      The passage in Mt 18:17, "Tell it to the church," &c., is generally claimed as justifying the use of the word in this sense, but I think improperly. It is sometimes applied to the members of a church as distinguished from the officers, but never vice versa.

      Others take it for a place of worship, and call such a place a church. This opinion they usually try to support by the texts 1Co 11:18 14:34. But in both places it may be better understood of the saints assembled.

      The word is also used by modern writers to signify any particular denomination of professing Christians distinguished from other sects and connections by certain peculiarities in doctrine, government, discipline, modes of worship, &c., as,

      The Greek Church.

      The Roman Church.

      The Protestant Church. And this latter again into a great variety of lesser divisions and persuasions, as, [16]

      The Episcopal Church.

      The Presbyterian Church.

      The Lutheran Church.

      The Reformed Church.

      The Methodist Church.

      The Baptist Church, &c., &c.

      The unhappy division of the church into such a variety of voluntary associations and parties, wearing different human names and titles, is, in my opinion, utterly wrong.

      And why is it wrong?

      1st. Because it is unscriptural; and,

      2d. Because it is the means of creating and promoting sectarianism, or party spirit.

      First. It is contrary to Scripture to divide the church of God into different sects and denominations. This is sufficiently evident from the fact, as I before showed, that the word ecclesia, or church, is never used by the inspired penmen in such a sense, but always as denoting either the whole collective body of the faithful throughout the world, or a distinct congregation of Christians located in some given place. Accordingly, there are individual or particular churches; and those collectively constitute one general or universal church. Beside this division of the church, there is no divine warrant given for any other. Hence, the combination of two or more individual churches into a sect or distinct connection wearing a sectarian name and governed by human laws is highly improper and anti-scriptural.

      This fact is more evident still from sundry passages bearing explicitly on the subject. Among all the primitive churches there was but one, that I know of, so unfortunate as to be divided into various parties. I mean the church in the city of Corinth. There the separating principle first originated. The saints were unhappily divided into different factions or parties. These parties avowedly set themselves up under different heads, and distinguished themselves by various names. One, for instance, said, "I am for [17] Paul"; and a second, "I am for Apollos"; and a third, "I am for Cephas"; whilst a fourth said, "I am for Christ." Thus the whole church was rent into fixed parties, whence ensued grievous heart-burnings, envyings, and strifes. But what did Paul, the great Apostle of the Gentiles, think of these inglorious dissensions? And what did the Holy Ghost move him to write to the Christians at Corinth concerning this carnal matter? Let the Apostle's own letters furnish an answer to these queries. "For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you. Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul, and I of Apollos, and I of Cephas, and I of Christ. Is Christ divided?" (1Co 1:11-13). "For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?" (1Co 3:3). "Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them" (Ro 16:17). What was the doctrine which they had learned in relation to this subject? Why, that they should "be perfectly joined together" [1Co 1:10].

      "Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment" (1Co 1:10).

      From these texts and other analogous texts it is to my mind very evident that the division of the church into various sects and parties, as they exist at present in Christendom, is unscriptural.

      And I would add, to divide the church is likewise unreasonable. It is so for the same reasons it is unscriptural. For reason and revelation do perfectly harmonize. But for the sake of further illustration I would here merely ask, would it not be thought very improper and unreasonable for a woman to refuse to go by the name of her husband, and call herself after the name of one of her husband's servants, or after some other man? Reason says it undoubtedly would. Even so reason teaches us that it is highly [18] unreasonable for the church, denominated in the Bible "the bride," "spouse," "Lamb's wife," &c., to divide into different parties, assume and wear the names of men and other human titles instead of the name of the Lord God who bought her with His own blood. For says God, "Thou [the church] shalt be called by a new name, which the mouth of the Lord shall name" [Isa 62:2]. Surely, then, the naming of the church by men cannot have God for its author. No, it is an evil invention of poor, mistaken man. Let the wise and prudent, therefore, who can foresee this evil, hide themselves in good time from it, and not act the part of the simple, who pass on and are punished. But,

      Second. To divide the church of God into various denominations is wrong, because it begets and promotes sectarianism.

      By sectarianism I mean a spirit of bigotry or party prejudice. And what can be more inconsistent and hateful in a professor of the blessed and holy religion of Jesus Christ than such a satanic spirit? "Nothing," saith a certain author, "in the whole range of mental poison corrodes like party spirit. It seems by some demoniac magic to change our very being; influence the life blood itself, and penetrate the whole system of the patient, who knows not himself while under its influence." Besides, nothing doubtless has a more withering influence, and is on the whole more hurtful to the cause of Christianity than a sectarian partiality. This deplorable fact the concurrent testimony of the faithful in every age and clime does most unequivocally and invincibly prove. However, all this may be admitted whilst the proposition we have laid down will be doubted. It remains, then, for us to show that sects and parties and their assumed powers are in fact the main cause of a sectarian or party spirit. Having asserted this as my decided opinion, I shall endeavor now to establish it. And in confirmation of it I allege, as evidence:

      1st. Scripture history; and

      2d. Daily experience. [19]

      First. I allege as evidence sacred or scriptural history. The history of the church, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles and in the Epistles, plainly shows the fact that sectarianism or bigotry grows out of religious parties. The devil is no doubt the great mover and the efficient cause of the iniquitous thing, but sects and parties in the church are most unquestionably the instrumental cause of it. In all places, therefore, where Christians stood united together under Christ the great head of the church and constituted but one religious society, there heavenly union and delightful fellowship prevailed; and there nothing of that venomous kind of feeling existed known among us by the names of sectarianism, bigotry, party prejudice, &c. Or, if it did exist at all, we at least have no account of it in the Scriptures. But, on the contrary, wherever schism took place and parties were formed, as in the Corinthian church (where this terrible mystery of iniquity first began to work), there, instead of peace and harmony, partyism, contention, and strife soon prevailed. It is natural and rational, therefore, to conclude that sects and parties must have been the cause of it. In further confirmation of this opinion, I allege,

      Second. Daily experience; that is, the experience and history of the church in all ages.

      The Old Testament church was divided into a variety of sects and parties, as Samaritans, Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, &c. The sad consequence of which was that they hated and opposed one another. This is evident from a number of passages in the New Testament.

      And soon after the New Testament church was established in the world, "the Dragon, that old serpent which is the Devil and Satan" [Re 20:2], began to sow the seeds of discord among the followers of the Lamb. And that this arch enemy of God and man has actually succeeded in his attempt to divide the flock of God is too obvious to need any proof. But, oh, what a pity that this dividing principle ever invaded the hallowed pale of the church of Christ! For who [20] is so blind as not to see the mischief it has done? And who among men is competent to estimate the vast amount of mischief that has grown out of the same? Oh, it is past finding out! It far exceeds the bounds of imagination's utmost stretch to conceive. The solemn and momentous transactions of the last day can only make a full disclosure of it. "Fix," says one, "on any period of the Christian church; look into the ecclesiastical history of that period, and what will you find it to one? Little more, I suspect, than the history of the struggles of different sects and parties to overturn the system of others in order to build up their own."

      This appalling fact will, perhaps, be found nowhere more strictly true than in the history of the church since the days of Martin Luther, the celebrated Saxon reformer. Since that memorable time a great variety of opposing parties has sprung up in almost every part of Protestant Christendom. And I know not that these religious sects are more numerous in any country than in our own. North America abounds with them. Here, then, we have a fine opportunity to know whether they are a blessing or a curse to the cause of God, or the religion of Jesus. So far as my observation and experience enable me to form any judgment of this matter, I feel not hesitation in saying that I believe them to be a most dreadful curse to the kingdom of our Redeemer. This I believe because they have a tendency, as was stated before, to promote a sectarian spirit, and thereby destroy that intimate union, that heaven-descended peace, harmony, and good will which ought always to characterize the sons and daughters of the Lord Almighty. Now let us consider, for a few moments, plain matters of fact. Facts are not only stubborn things, but they will likewise speak for themselves. When the Lord our God pours out His Spirit, as on the day of Pentecost, and revives His work, so that many are converted and made happy in redeeming love, all experience shows that these new-born souls are sweetly knit and joined together as one man; or like David and Jonathan, and like the first Christians, they are all of one heart and one soul. And like our heavenly Father, they have no respect to person. But no sooner than different sectarians [21] come in among them, and begin to divide them into various sects and parties, love to one another, which is the cardinal mark and badge of discipleship, rapidly declines, or waxes cold, as the Scripture expresses it [Mt 24:12]. Now, instead of living in peace, loving as brethren, and so fulfilling their Master's law, we soon see them acquire a sectarian likeness; they will, ere long, have common sentiments, common language, and common habits, which, when acquired, frequently give rise to a mistaken zeal for the honor of God, a blind attachment to their respective peculiarities, and such an inveterate prejudice against one another that they seldom or never meet together again for the worship of that God who made them, and whose children they profess to be. And if they do happen to meet with each other at a religious meeting, it requires but very little discernment to observe the unhallowed partiality which they manifest toward their respective sects. And besides, a great and manifest difference is often observed in their common dealing and intercourse with each other. Everything seems to assume a sectarian aspect between these unhappy partisans. But, O! can these things be true? Would to God they were not! Yet, alas! their frequent occurrence has given them a universal notoriety and leaves us no room to doubt their correctness. And if so, then our position is established by the incontrovertible argument of experience, namely, that the division of the church into different sects and parties gives rise to, or occasions, sectarian and party feelings; and that these anti-Christian feelings go to destroy peace and union among Christians. O sectarianism, what hast thou done? Thou hast perverted the right ways of the Lord. And by so doing thou hast made more the infidels than all the swearers, and drunkards, and whoremongers, and thieves, and robbers, and murderers in the world.

      On these grounds, then, I assert and maintain it to be utterly wrong and sinful in the sight of God to set up and promote sectarian churches. This many will acknowledge to be true, notwithstanding, persist in acting on this separating principle. And [22] then as a kind of atonement for their sin will afterwards preach and pray for the destruction of bigotry, prejudice, and partiality, and for unity and harmony among the people of God. Thus by their doings they promote the separating principle, and by their words they advocate the principle of union. With their lips and words they labor to build up what with their hands and actions they are the means of destroying. But how often do they thus labor and spend their words in vain? And no wonder, for who is so blind as not to see that by such strange conduct they contradict both the Scriptures and common sense. Instead of following our Lord's direction, "First make the tree good" [Mt 12:33], they corrupt the good tree by splitting it into pieces, and then wish and pray that it might bring forth good fruit. Like Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, these partisans cause a revolt in the Israel of God [1Ki 11:26]. This result leads to perpetual wars between the revolved tribes and parties, and these wars again lead to the building of fenced cities and high places (spiritually the doctrine and commandments of men), and divers strengthening of themselves against each other in order to reign. Now, one of two things such people, in order to be consistent, ought to do--either leave off praying for a union among Christians, or quit building up sects and parties. For "no man can serve two masters" [Mt 6:24].

      It is a principle in natural philosophy that every effect has an adequate cause. And on this principle the following rule is founded: Remove the cause and the effect will cease. Now, if the establishment of sectarian churches is the primary cause of bigotry or sectarian prejudice, then, in order to effect a destruction of the latter evil, which is the effect, the former, which is the cause, ought first to be removed. And not until this is done can any rational hope be entertained of seeing Christians perfectly joined together, loving each other with a pure heart fervently, and living in unity and peace among themselves. Thus I have ventured to give my opinion in this matter; whether I am right, and if so, how far I [23] have succeeded in demonstrating the same, I shall leave to my unprejudiced readers to judge.

      From what I have said on this subject the reader may discover the principal reason why I have not felt more solicitous to be in full connection with some religious denomination. In this sectarian section of our country it is thought to be sinful by many not to belong to some particular sect. Accordingly they have charged me and others with a breach of order, and sometimes with an intention of "setting up for ourselves," "forming a new sect," or beginning something new, &c.

      At other times they have said "that we are ashamed to be called by their name," "that we were opposed to discipline," and what not.

      I know not how to account for such vain babbling but on the mischievous principle of sectarianism. None but high-toned sectarians would indulge themselves in speaking so unadvisedly.

      The real truth is, instead of setting up for ourselves, we wish to set up for God; instead of raising a new sect, we would rather put down sects; instead of beginning something new, we wish to fall back and assume the old apostolic ground.

      As for being ashamed to wear a sectarian or nick name, I disown not the allegation. And the day is coming when, I have no doubt, there will be a great many more ashamed of it, and those perhaps who now glory in it will then be most ashamed.

      A scriptural church discipline I have never opposed. But sectarian laws, penal codes, and divers machinations, which pass for ecclesiastical Disciplines, in some places and among some sects, I do not, and cannot, approve.

      Having endeavored to show what the church is, and what it is not, I propose in the next chapter to point out the manner of forming or constituting the church of God according to the primitive mode. [24]

The Reformed Reader Home Page 

Copyright 1999, The Reformed Reader, All Rights Reserved