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CHAPTER VIII.
CHURCH GOVERNMENT.


      In discussing the subject of ecclesiastical government I shall endeavor to observe the ensuing method, viz.: I shall examine and point out,

      Having made this formal arrangement for the discussion of the subject in hand, I shall commence, as was proposed, by examining and pointing out,

      I. The Reality of Church Government.

      "When any thing," says a learned and pious author, "which belongs to religion is proposed to us, our first inquiry ought to be, whence is it? from heaven, or of men? If it is of men, it is not from heaven; and if it be from heaven, it is not of men; and, therefore, it must be of divine institution, and by consequence obligatory on men." Now, as I design to treat of church government, I shall first inquire, whence is it? Is it from heaven, or of men?

      I reply, that it is not of men; that is, it is not a mere product of the invention and power of men, but it is from heaven; that is, of a divine origin, having a divine institution. "It would be absurd to suppose that after Christ gave Himself for His church He would abandon her so far as to make any provision for her government." However, that Jesus Christ, the great and only head of the church, has ordained some particular form of government in her is manifest.

      First. From the relation which He sustains to the church, such as,

      Lord and Lawgiver (Ac 2:47 Isa 33:22 Jas 4:12). [87]

      King, Governor, Ruler, &c. (Ps 2:6 24:7-9 Isa 9:6 Mic 5:2).

      Second. From the laws and officers established or appointed in the church (Mt 18:17,18 28:18-20 1Co 12:28). As the laws and officers of the Jewish church manifest that Christ established a particular form of government therein, so likewise do the laws and officers of the Christian church show the appointment or institution of government in it.

      Third. From the duty of submission to church officers, which is frequently and earnestly recommended and enjoined upon the church members in the sacred Scripture. "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves" (Heb 13:17; see also Ro 13:1).

      Fourth. From the account of the apostolic churches. The New Testament teaches us that the primitive churches managed and performed all their religious affairs with a decency and dignity becoming the things of God, and with due regularity and order. And, accordingly, we find the Apostles often calling upon Christians to "put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness" (Col 3:14). And to have all things "done decently and in order" (1Co 14:40).

      It appears, moreover, that almost all professing Christians have a belief that some particular form of church government was appointed by divine authority, since they have labored to support their own peculiar form of it from the Scripture. The reality of it, then, being established, I proceed to examine and point out,

      II. The Form of Church Government.

      There are some who are of opinion that this subject is left at loose ends, that is to say, that the Holy Scriptures exhibit no definite or given form of ecclesiastical government. And whereas revelation is silent, or contains no particular, positive prescriptions relating to the form of government, it ought and must of right be left to reason and the common prudence of Christians in all ages and places to determine on, and adopt, such a form as they deem most expedient. Others, however, are of a contrary opinion; and they [88] say that not only the name and thing itself, but also the form thereof, are clearly exhibited in the Bible, and, consequently, that it is of divine appointment. But as to what the particular form of government is which Christ has instituted in His church, they hold different opinions. Christians of different denominations identify it with their own favorite form.

      As political writers have enumerated and plead for different forms of civil government, viz.: Monarchy, which is the government of a single person; Aristocracy, which is the government of a select assembly, or body of men, the members of which are the chief and principal persons in that nations; Democracy, which is the government of the people at large, either collectively or by representation; so likewise have Christian writers enumerated and contended for different forms of ecclesiastical government. As,

      The Papal, which is the sovereign jurisdiction exercised by the Pope of Rome, throughout the Roman Catholic Church.

      The Patriarchal, or government of one or more ecclesiastical dignitaries, called Patriarchs. The patriarchate is supposed to be the supreme authority in the church by the Greeks throughout the East. Hence, the government of the Oriental or Greek Church is Patriarchal, that is, the exercise by the Patriarch of Constantinople.

      The Magisterial, that is, a government exercised by the magistrates, or the civil government.

      The different opinions which are found to be most prevalent at present on the subject of church government are the following three, viz.:

      First. The Episcopal form or mode of church government is that which is administered by Bishops, or where the supreme power of the church is vested in a distinct and superior order of church officers called Bishops. [89]

      Second. The Congregational or Independent form is that which is purely democratic or republican, where the right and power of ruling the church are lodged in the community of the faithful, or the membership, either collectively or by representation.

      Third. The Presbyterial, or Presbyterian form is the government of the church by Presbyteries, i.e., "by associations of teaching and ruling elders, all possessing equal powers, without any superiority among them either in office or in order."

      All these different forms or modes of government have been, and still are, warmly contended for among professing Christians. But though men entertain various views of this subject, it is still conclusive evidence that God has not appointed some particular and definite form of church government, nor yet that the said form is not clearly revealed to us in the Scriptures. To admit this would be to concede the infidel claim at once that God has instituted and revealed nothing to us in the Bible. For what subject can be named about which fallible men do not differ in their opinions? Why, none; no, not one.

      What, then, is that form of ecclesiastical government of which God is the author? In order to clear the way for a proper answer to this question, I here beg leave to say that in my opinion,

      It is not the Papal. God has no where given to the Pope of Rome the supreme and sovereign power of governing the church. In the enumeration of church officers there is no one mentioned as invested with monarchial authority in the church (see Eph 4:11 1Co 12:28).

      It is not Patriarchal. What I have said of the Pope of Rome may, with equal propriety, be affirmed of the Patriarch or Archbishop of Constantinople, who pretends to be the great head and governor of the Eastern or Greek Church.

      It is not Magisterial. Christ has not bestowed ecclesiastical power into the hands of the civil magistrates. Nowhere in the [90] New Testament are they spoken of as being church officers. Church rulers are appointed to office, not by the state, but by the church, or by her divine founder and head (Ac 20:28 1Co 12:28). And by virtue of this their divine appointment, they may execute their office not only without the consent, but contrary to the command, of civil rulers (Ac 4:19 5:29). Church government, therefore, is and always ought to be independent of civil government. Thus it was during the first ages of Christianity. For the space of three hundred years, and upwards, the whole power or government of the church was administered by her own officers. Thus it should have been continued. Thus it ought to be now.

      It is not Episcopal. Ecclesiastical government is not lodged in the hands of Bishops. We have proved before (see Chapter V) the identity of bishops and elders; consequently, there can be no Episcopal form of government where there is no such an order of officers divinely established in the gospel church. And beside, the Scriptures are not only silent in regard to the claims of Episcopacy, but they expressly forbid all lordly dominion in the church (Lu 22:25,26 1Pe 5:3).

      It is not Congregational. Church government is not lodged by Christ in the membership, or in the community of the faithful. There are certain rulers divinely appointed in the church (Ac 20:28 1Co 12:28). If all were rulers, who then would remain to be ruled? God, therefore, has vested the executive power of the church in the officers of the church, and not in the brotherhood, or members collectively. Church members are represented as the flock, the family, the body, &c., whilst the officers are described as their rulers, guides, overseers, governors, &c. Accordingly, the former are commanded to honor, obey, and submit to the latter; and the latter are commanded to teach, oversee, and rule the former (see Ac 20:28 1Th 5:12 1Ti 5:17 Heb 13:7-17).

      If, then, the form or mode of church government is neither Papal, nor Patriarchal, nor Magisterial, nor Episcopal, nor Congregational, what is it? [91]

      It is Presbyterian. The right and power which God has ordained for the government of the church is lodged in the hands of the presbytery of each and every duly organized church. But,

      By a presbytery is not meant a church judicatory, "constituted of different pastors and ruling elders from different congregations." As the combination of different individual churches into a particular sect or denomination is unwarranted in the Scriptures, so likewise is there no divine warrant to constitute church courts of ruling officers from different particular churches, such as classes, councils, synods, conferences, conventions, &c. The argument in favor of such courts, which some have labored to draw from the example of the Apostolic Synod, as they call it, of which we read in the fifteenth chapter of Acts, is, in my opinion, quite forced and weak; for whoever reads the history of that meeting, as recorded in the chapter just quoted, will readily perceive that it was not a Synod, or a Church Court, made up of commissioners, or representatives from different churches, but of the Apostles, elders, and brethren of the church at Jerusalem. Whatsoever, therefore, the church at Jerusalem, with and by the direction of the Apostles and other inspired men, authoritatively determined as a duty for the Gentile churches, and that only in a dubious case, can be no sufficient authority for modern churches to spend their time and money in holding quarterly, half-yearly, and annual Church Courts of the above description.

      What, then, is meant by the presbytery, or eldership, of a church? It simply signifies the elders, or presbyters, of an individual church (1Ti 4:14). Accordingly, the elders of each particular church constitute the proper judicatory, or court, which Christ has invested with full power and authority to administer the moral government of His church. This will appear evident if we consider,

      First. The names and titles which are given to church elders in the Scriptures. They are called leaders, ministers, overseers, presidents, rulers, governors, shepherds, stewards, teachers, &c., all which titles are expressive of power and authority; and this, [92] doubtless, they must have the right of exercising in all its parts in those churches over which they are appointed.

      Second. The express grant, or actual commission, given to them in the Scriptures. It is written, "I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven," &c. (Mt 16:19). "'The keys of the kingdom of heaven' is a metaphorical expression, implying a grant of power to regulate and control the internal and spiritual concerns of the church." In the solemn charge which the Apostle gave to the eldership, or the elders of the church, at Ephesus, he said: "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God" (Ac 20:28). In 1Co 12:28 it is said that God has set some, not all, governments or governors in the church. Again, the commission delivered by St. Peter to the elders of the churches in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, he says, "Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof," &c. [1Pe 5:2]. The same word in the Greek language [poimaino] which signifies to feed signifies to rule also (see Mt 2:6).

      Third. The exhortations so frequently given to church members to obey and submit themselves to their officers, or elders (Ro 13:1 Heb 13:7,17). "Now, the command to obey on the one part implies, necessarily, a power on the other to rule and govern."

      Thus we see that the right to exercise this authority in the church belongs, by divine appointment, to the presbytery, or elders of the church, and to no one else. On this account the government of the church is, or may be said to be, Presbyterian.

      And inasmuch as every individual church has a just right, and always ought to elect her own presbyters, or elders, who when elected and ordained to office act in their official capacity as the proper representatives of the church, her form of government is likewise Republican, and every particular church corresponds with a little Republic. [93]

      As, therefore, the right and power of governing the church are by divine appointment lodged in the hands of the eldership, what is the nature of that power with which elders are clothed? This introduces what I proposed to show,

      III. The Nature and Extent of Church Government.

      The right and power communicated by Jesus Christ for the government of His church are not,

      First. Civil and Political. There is no grant of such power bestowed upon church rulers in the Word of God. But, on the contrary, it is expressly interdicted: "Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion," &c. (Mt 20:25,26), but "neither as being lords over God's heritage" (1Pe 5:3). But it is,

      Second. Spiritual and Ministerial. The government of the church is purely moral, or spiritual. This will clearly appear when we consider,

      Its source and author, which is Christ, the "quickening Spirit" (1Co 15:40; see also Mt 16:19 18:15-20).

      Its subjects, which are men "born of the Spirit," and built up a spiritual house for God (Joh 3:6 Eph 2:22).

      Its matter or parts, which are divine doctrine, divine ordinances, divine order and discipline (Ro 1:16 1Co 11:23-29 Mt 18:15-20 2Co 2:6).

      Again, all church power bestowed by Christ for the government of the church is ministerial. It is ministerial in opposition to that which is magisterial, legislative, and lordly.

      Church officers have no legislative authority bestowed upon them. They have no right to make laws, but only to announce and execute the law and order of Christ's house. God is the only who can legislate for His church. "There is one lawgiver" (Jas 4:12). A judge in a court, or a magistrate in a city, has no power to make any new law; his business is only to explain and apply in general the laws that are made, according to the best of his understanding. So ministers in the church are not lords, or sovereigns, in Christ's [94] kingdom. They, in their highest character, can be supposed to be set up as judges to explain His laws, and to apply them to rising occasions, and show men how to do all things decently and orderly.

      When our Savior gave commission to His disciples, or His Apostles, to preach the gospel to all nations, it was in this manner: "Teaching them to observe all things" (not whatsoever you, or they, shall command, but) "whatsoever I have commanded you" (Mt 28:20). And what a strange medley of superstitious and ridiculous fooleries would be introduced into the church of God if the elders, or rulers, of every church, and in every age, might invent a new scheme of laws and ceremonies at their own pleasure and impose them upon their fellow Christians, The people, then, would soon be priest-ridden, even unto death. But all the rule, or power of government, which is granted to elders of a Christian church is ministerial. That is, a derived power, and it merely gives the right of administering, or executing, the laws of God. This will further appear when we consider wherein the rule and government seems to consist chiefly in these things, viz.:

      "In going before the people, and leading the several parts of their worship, and becoming their example in every duty. In teaching them the principles and rules of their religion, the knowledge, profession, and practice of those doctrines and duties, that worship and order, which reason and natural religion dictate and which Christ Himself has revealed, superadded, and established in His word. It consists in exhorting, and persuading, and charging the hearers with solemnity, in the name and authority of Christ, to comply therewith; in instructing the people how to apply those general principles and rules to particular cases and occurrences, and giving them their best advice. It consists in presiding in their assemblies for worship, or otherwise; in examining and admitting applicants for church membership; in watching over the flock, in guarding them against errors and dangers. It consists in conducting the moral discipline of the church; in admonishing, and [95] warning, and reproving, with all gravity and authority, those who neglect or oppose any of the rules, ordinances, and commandments of Christ, in expelling from the church the scandalous, and in receiving again the truly penitent."

      Now, if in these things, agreeably to the Word of God, the government of the church principally consists, then the nature of it is, as we have stated, not carnal and civil, but spiritual and ministerial. Consequently, it extends not to the right or power of exercising any extrinsic jurisdiction, nor to the right of legislating for the church. It is the business of church elders to govern, rule, and preside over those churches "over which the Holy Ghost hath made [them] overseers" [Ac 20:28]. And the great system of rules, or laws, by which they are to exercise and dispense her government is not a human system of rules and regulations, but the Bible--the true Word of God--the only authorized constitution of the true church of God. "The church, being founded upon revelation alone, ought to be wholly regulated by the measuring reed, and the line of God's Word" (Eph 2:20 Eze 43:11,12 Heb 8:5 Re 11:1 21:15).

      However, there are many who think differently, and they seem to be of the opinion that the Bible alone is no sufficient rule for the government of the church. Hence they hold church councils, synods, conferences, &c., and make ecclesiastical creeds and books of government and discipline, and impose them on the consciences of their brethren and fellows saints. And they would gladly persuade everybody, if they could, to think that the statute books of their forefathers, or their own sectarian inventions, are absolutely necessary to secure the peace and union of the church, not to say the salvation of the soul. For it is said by one of the most reputable writers of our age that no church can be secure, either of purity or peace, for a single year; nay, no church can effectually guard against the highest degree of corruption and strife without some test of truth, explicitly agreed upon and adopted by her in her ecclesiastical capacity; something capable of being referred to when most needed, which not only this or that private member supposes to [96] have been received, but to which the church as such has agreed to adhere as a bond of union. In other words, a church in order to maintain "the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" and love must have a creed, a written creed, to which she has formally given her assent, and to a conformity to which her ministrations are pledged (see Miller's Lecture on the Utility of Creeds). Others again, speaking the like perverse things, will tell us you have no human discipline, and you must have a discipline or you cannot prosper, you cannot stand, you cannot keep religion, &c., &c. Thus have "grievous wolves" entered in among the disciples of Jesus, "not sparing the flock" of God [Ac 20:29], but making havoc with with the authoritative doctrines and commandment of men.

      Thus have "men arisen, speaking perverse things." And for what? Why, sometimes merely "to draw away disciples after them" [Ac 20:30].

      It requires but little thought or reflection, however, to discover that these mistaken partisans are under the influence of a great error. And if they did but serious consider how much their groundless assertions reflect upon the infinite wisdom of the great Head and Founder of the church, they would feel ashamed and would forever cease to play off those proselyting games on their fellow Christians. Look at the terrible consequences to which the practical principle of these men directly and inevitably leads. To say that these legalized standards are "indispensably necessary for maintaining the unity and purity of visible church, to guard her effectually against the highest degree of corruption and strife, to enable men to keep religion, and to ensure their eternal salvation," &c., is, in effect, to say that the Bible is imperfect and insufficient for the attainment of these unspeakably great and important ends. And moreover, that all the Christians in the Apostolic age (for there were no such human inventions then); yea, and all those in subsequent ages, previous to the existence of these human creeds and books of discipline, have lost their religion, died in their sins and sunk to hell. These are some of the melancholy conclusions to which the [97] heresy, or erroneous principle, of these men most inevitably leads. Who, then, can believe them? And who would if he could? I neither can nor will believe such strange and pernicious inventions of fallible men. I verily do believe that the church of Christ prospered just as much, yea, more, and that Christians got to heaven just as well, yea, better, before human standards were set up, or these sectarian fences were built, than since their erection. And if the children of God will only walk carefully by, and stand fast in, the "perfect law of liberty wherewith Christ hath made [them] free" [Jas 1:25], they shall not only find it possible, but highly honorable and pleasant, to get to heaven without wearing any sectarian yoke of bondage. And this will be their distinguished privilege as long as the mediatorial reign of the Son of God shall last.

      I proceed to show,

      IV. The Ends or Purposes of Ecclesiastical Government.

      These are such as the following:

      First. To guard the members of the church against hurtful collision. If all Christians were what they ought to be, there would be no jarring interest and hurtful collisions to be feared; but as long as so many imperfections and moral infirmities are found among them it cannot be expected to be seen otherwise. However, one end of the institution of government is to guard against this evil.

      Second. To preserve due order and decorum is another great end contemplated by church government. God is a God of order; and, therefore, He has ordained order and decency in all the churches of the saints. But without government things will run into disorder and confusion; hence, to preserve regularity and order there must needs be government.

      Third. To secure the common weal in our social worship and transactions is another grand design of church government. The peace, harmony, and prosperity of the church will thereby be greatly promoted. It has a most happy tendency also to facilitate the [98] conversion of sinners and to promote the general revival of religion. But,

      Fourth. To glorify and honor God is the great ultimate end or design of all government, or the exercise of church power.

      Thus, then, I have briefly considered the subject of ecclesiastical government. Much more might easily be said on a subject so interesting and so highly important, but I shall conclude this chapter by adding a few remarks taken from the learned Dr. Watts' Rational Foundation of a Christian Church.

      "The principles on which Christian churches are built and governed are so plain, so natural and easy, and so much the same with those which give rise, vigor, and stability to all the well-founded societies in the world, that one would think there could not be such a matter of debate and controversy among Christians upon these subjects as we have unhappily found."

      All that I have said relative to the formation and government of Christian churches is built on the internal reasons and relations of things, as well as on the Word of God.

      And with churches thus constituted and governed there are several great and important advantages connected, such as these:

      First. This scheme is perfectly consistent with every form and kind of civil government, whether it be a kingdom, a senate, or a republic. For it does not mingle itself with the interests of this world, nor assume to itself any civil or coercive power, so it can make no head against the governors of the country, for its power is of another kind, and reaches but to one single society of Christians; nor are they combined by any law of Christ in such multitudes, under one common, visible head, as to make themselves dangerous to any state. Whatsoever hath been done in the world by men professing Christianity, in a way of resistance to lawful governors, or rebellions against them, hath never been done by them as churches of Christ, formed upon the model I have laid down.

      Second. This form of a Christian church allows to all its members the most perfect liberty of men and Christians. It is [99] inconsistent with persecution for conscience sake, for it leave all civil rewards and preferments, penalties and punishments, to kingdoms and states, and to the governors of this world. It pretends to no power over conscience to compel men to obedience; no prisons, no axes, fire, nor sword. Its elders, or rulers, have no power to command anything but what is found in the Bible and what reason and common prudence will dictate.

      Third. Miscarriages in the government or conduct of such a church as I have described are less dangerous for Christianity, because they affect but one single church. Those ecclesiastical governments which include vast numbers and multitudes combined under one or more spiritual heads or rulers, if there be any misrule or confusion of it, and sometimes shakes, or destroys, whole nations. But if a government which is included within one single church be ever so much divided by contentions, and fall into the greatest confusion, the mischief is not of so large an extent, nor can it have so fatal and dreadful consequences. If the church itself should be actually dissolved, the particular members of it may depart and join themselves to other churches within the reach or neighborhood, and walk with them in a religious and peaceful fellowship.

      Upon the whole, whensoever it shall appear that any other form or mode of church government is more happily suited to the edification and peace of Christians, to the preservation of Christian liberty, and to secure the spiritual honors which belong to Christ in His churches, and at the same time appears to have more countenance from the New Testament than this, I shall be glad to relinquish this set of sentiments, and with pleasure exchange it for a better. That is certainly the best form and order of a Christian church whereby truth, peace, and holiness may be most happily promoted and secured. [100]

 
 
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