committed to historic Baptist & Reformed beliefs

 

 

CHAPTER II.
THE FORMATION OF THE CHURCH.

      To form or establish an individual church on the New Testament plan, or according to the principles and practices of the Apostles and primitive Christians, two things are essentially necessary, namely:

      1. That there be a competent number of Christians in any given place.

      2. That these Christians voluntarily and mutually agree to associate together in a church-state, or a distinct ecclesiastical community.

      First. In order to constitute or form a regular and complete gospel church it is essentially necessary that there should be a competent number of true Christians in any one place. The reason for this is obvious. No church of God can be established where there is no suitable material. Christians are the only fit material for the formation of a Christian church. And if so, it follows as a necessary consequence that no society of Christians or saints can be formed where there are none. The practice of erecting churches with "wood, hay, and stubble" [1Co 3:12], after the manner of some, that is, with unconverted people or even with the heterogeneous or discordant materials of converted and unconverted persons, is beyond all doubt not merely a great piece of folly, but of iniquity also. For, says the Apostle, "If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are" (1Co 3:17).

      With respect to the number of believers requisite for constituting a gospel church, the Holy Scriptures are silent. Consequently no particular or permanent rule can be given to regulate this point. Some have thought that three persons were sufficient, inasmuch as Christ has promised to be in the midst of two or three, wherever they meet together in His name (Mt 18:20). Others are of opinion [25] that it requires about twelve members at least, seeing the church at Ephesus was begun with twelve members, or thereabouts (Ac 19:7).

      No individual church should consist of more members than what can conveniently meet together in one place of worship, where all may hear and be edified. As a hive of bees, when there are too many, swarms, so should a church agree to divide and form another whenever her members multiply beyond what can meet to worship in one place.

      Second. To constitute or form a regular church it is necessary that the Christians of any given place mutually agree to unite together in a church-state, or in an ecclesiastical society. This, however, is a contested principle.

      There are some Christians who boldly declare that the combination of individual Christians into regular religious societies is both inexpedient and unlawful. Accordingly they plead for religious liberty, and strenuously maintain that every Christian is and ought to remain free and unconnected with all religious associations of the opinion to defend and support the same are these:

      First. That the formation of such societies destroys union and promotes discord among Christians.

      Second. That it leads to the establishment of sectarian laws and the assumption of human authority in the church.

      Third. That the Scriptures prohibit it, inasmuch as Christians are therein declared to be free, and exhorted to "stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ has made [them] free" [Ga 5:1].

      Plausible as this train of argument may appear at first sight, little of it will bear a due examination.

      The first argument is founded in a radical error, resulting no doubt from the misconceptions and false notions which are generally formed of churches, or religious societies. The amalgamation of different individual and local churches into sundry connections and denominations, distinguished from each other by a great mass of [26] human appendages, I freely admit, have a tendency to destroy union and promote discord, envy, and strife among Christians.

      But the establishment of religious societies on the plan of independency, the principle acted on by the Apostles and primitive Christians, has no such tendency. As, therefore, the abuse of any principle or duty ought never to set aside the use of it, the fallacy of this argument must be apparent to all.

      The second argument is analogous to the former and derives all its apparent validity from the same mistaken theory of church establishments. The formation of sectarian churches may lead to the enactment of sectarian laws and the exercise of human power by aspiring ecclesiastics, whereas the formation of individual churches on scriptural principles does not. As men, however, are very apt to fly from one extreme to another, it is, perhaps, more than likely that the former error of some men has driven others into the latter.

      The last argument I suppose to be no less unfounded in its principle and originates in mistaken views of religious or Christian liberty.

      What is Christian liberty? Or, wherein does it lie? Does it consist in the right of self-government, or in the privilege of every man to do that which is right in his own eyes? For a person to live without law, and to enjoy an uncontrollable right to act in every instance as he pleases, is neither civil nor religious liberty. It may be called a Hermit's liberty, or the liberty of solitude; for it can only comport with a state of loneliness and solitude; but with no kind of propriety can it be denominated Christian liberty.

      Christian liberty lies in a recovery from the ruins of apostasy, and restoration unto God through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, and sanctification of the spirit unto the obedience of faith. Accordingly a Christian is freed from the condemnation of the law, from the tyranny of the devil, from the dominion of sin, from the fear and power of death, and from eternal condemnation, or the awful wrath of a sin avenging God. But he is not free from the [27] obedience of faith, that is, from the law of God as the great authoritative rule of his faith, his experience, and his practice.

      If then Christians, as social beings, are subject to the same common head, they are to live under the same laws of God, and if they have the same religious and relative duties to perform, they of course cannot be allowed to act as they please, but are bound in all their religious and social transactions to demean themselves agreeably to the Word of God, and in harmony with the general benefit of the whole community of which they are members.

      The combination of Christians in a church-state is therefore not incompatible with religious liberty. We deem these remarks quite sufficient to expose the fallacy and futility of these arguments against the formation of churches.

      We shall now adduce a few direct arguments in favor of the combination of individual Christians into regular ecclesiastical societies. The necessity and propriety of this duty the subsequent considerations will, I think, very lucidly and forcibly demonstrate.

      First. That the church of God is a divinely appointed and regular society. A society denotes a number of individuals associated together upon certain specific principles and for certain specific purposes. Now this I think is the nature and character of the Christian church, agreeably to the account given of her in the New Testament. She is never spoken of, or represented, as a confused multitude of persons, independent of one another, but as a well-formed and regular society; that is to say, an indefinite number of persons called out of nature into grace, and combined or united together for religious purposes. Hence the inspired penman represents the church under the idea of a "body" (Ro 12:4,5), "a house" (Eph 2:19), "a city" (Heb 12:22), "a kingdom" (Col 1:13), "a nation" (1Pe 2:9), &c. All and every one of which include the idea or notion of a well-regulated society. If, then, from these and other names and allusions by which the church is described in Scripture, it sufficiently appears that she is a regular society, we cannot help but perceive and admit the necessity [28] of the position under consideration; for no regular society, whether civil or moral, can exist at all without some kind of compact or confederation. This truth is no less forcibly illustrated by the fact,

      Second. That the Apostles uniformly united the first Christians together into regular religious societies. These religious societies they called churches. And they generally went by the names of the places where they were located, and not by the names of the persons who first planted or established them, as is often the case nowadays. Thus, for instance, when Paul and Silas went to Macedonia to preach the gospel unto the inhabitants of that country they commenced their benevolent work in the city of Philippi. Thence they went to Thessalonica, and thence to other places. In these places it pleased God to make them the honored instruments of converting many people. These young converts were immediately formed into ecclesiastical societies or churches, which were called by the names of the cities or towns where they were located. And this was their general practice everywhere.

      Again, this doctrine will with equal plainness appear when we consider,

      Third. That it is authorized by the gospel and required by the order of Christ's house.

      It is authorized by the gospel. This, if I am not mistaken, will sufficiently appear from the following passages:

      "And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be," or as it ought to read, "were saved" (Ac 2:47).

      "And of the rest [namely, such as were not saved] durst no man join himself to them" (Ac 5:13).

      These texts plainly show,

      1st. That the saved and the unsaved were divided into distinct classes.

      2d. That the former were added together, and that the latter were not permitted to join them. [29]

      3d. That the whole matter was thus ordered by the Lord. Consequently the adding or joining together of saints in a church-state is of no human invention, but is appointed by divine authority.

      Again, it is required by the order of Christ's house. This is fully established by the fact that the New Testament economy requires church government. Now, as experience clearly shows that no well-organized system of government can be maintained by any people in a disjointed and confused state, it necessarily follows that Christians ought and must unite together in religious societies in order to observe the sacred system of order established in the church by her adorable Author. And besides, it is both reasonable and necessary that it should be so, because without it there can be no reciprocating assurance of moral concord and no systematic cooperation in the discharge of various and highly important duties incumbent on church members in their sacred relation. The accomplishment of these ends not only justifies, but renders the union of Christians into religious societies or churches of great and vital importance.

      "Hence," says a learned author, "I affirm it is the duty of every one who professeth faith in Christ Jesus, and takes due care of his own eternal salvation, to join himself unto the church of God." And this is not a duty which believers may do as a convenience or an advantage; not that which others may do for them, but which they must do for themselves as an act of obedience to the authority and commands of Christ. Yet this duty of joining themselves to the church always is, or ought to be, a voluntary act, or an act of free choice.

      This truth is so sacred, so evident from the Word of God, so clearly testified by the uniform practice of all the first churches, as that it despiseth all opposition. "It is this confederacy, consent and agreement that is the formal cause of the church. It is this which not only distinguishes a church from the world, but from all other particular churches." And as the original constitution of [30] churches is by consent and confederation, so the admission of new members to them is upon the same footing.

      The practice which prevails in some churches to compel men into their communion and keep them in it by fire and fagot, or by any other means of external force, derives more from the Alcoran than the gospel. And no less inconsistent is the custom of other churches to make men members of the church by the laws of the land, or to pretend they are so by birth. From all which it follows,

      1. That a church of God is not parochial. Men do not become church members by habitation in a parish, for unbelievers and hypocrites, Turks and Jews, adulterers and adulteresses may dwell in the same parish.

      2. A church is not diocesan or provincial. We read of a plurality of elders and bishops in one church (Ac 20:17 Php 1:1), and of a number of churches in one province, as of the churches of Judea, and of Galatia, and of Macedonia; but we never read of a diocese and province under one elder or bishop.

      3. It is not national. So far from it that we not only read of more churches in a nation, but even of churches in houses (Ro 16:5 1Co 16:19 Col 4:15).

      4. It is not Presbyterian. We never read of a church of presbyters or elders, though of elders ordained in churches, by which it appears there were churches before there were any presbyters or elders in them (Ac 19:23).

      But a particular visible gospel church is a society of Christians united together for the celebration of the worship of God. A church of saints thus essentially constituted as to matter and form is the only one of which the Scriptures make any mention. And in no approved writers, for the space of two hundred years after Christ, is there mention made of any other.

      Now, whenever, or wherever, a competent number of Christians associate themselves together to form a church they possess full power and authority to organize, that is, to elect by a plurality of votes their own proper officers. And after they are regularly [31] organized they possess in their organic state sufficient power to perform all acts of religious worship, and everything relating to ecclesiastical government and discipline. But in no respect are they entitled to exercise legal authority over other churches. And whereas they are entitled to no jurisdiction over other churches, so neither are they subject to any extrinsic jurisdiction. Every individual church is strictly independent of all others, as it respects religious worship and the general government of its own affairs. This, however, I shall endeavor to establish more fully when I come to treat of church government. [32]

 
 
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