All the duties of religion are highly important; yet, some are more so than others. And those which are the most important doubtless deserve our first and greatest attention because they ought to be best understood and most conscientiously performed. These sentiments will, no doubt, be readily conceded on all hands, and need, therefore, no illustration.
Now among the various duties of our glorious religion, there are, in my opinion, none more arduous and more pre-eminently important than the duties of forming and regulating the church of God. These, therefore, ought to be most carefully investigated and most strictly observed.
But experience and observation furnish sufficient grounds to believe that these weighty matters are very little investigated, very imperfectly understood, and no less imperfectly practiced. Under a deep conviction of this fact. "I have taken in hand to set forth in order" [Lu 1:1] a brief view of the formation, government, and discipline of the church of God.
There are some learned and good men, both in this country and in Europe, who have written extremely well on this important subject; but their works are very frequently not to be had at all, or else they are published and bound up with their other writings, which make them too expensive for the people in general to purchase.
Others have written and preached on these interesting topics, but, without doubt, more to the injury of the cause and misleading of the people than otherwise.
Some are still employed in preaching and talking about  these things, both in public and in private, with similar mischief. For the most they do is to read, explain, and recommend to others the adoption of their favorite creeds and books of discipline.
Besides these, there are others again, who, seeing the sectarian jealousies and party feelings that exist in various parts of Christendom, are induced from prudential considerations to keep silent in relation to these matters. The principal one among these, perhaps, is the fear of giving offense, and thereby making bad worse, as the saying is. Yet it is neither policy, duty, nor Christianity to let a great evil alone for fear a greater one might follow.
Now, taking all these things into review, let us look at the sad consequences. What are they? They are evidently these: that many people are left in great ignorance; others are thrown into great perplexity of mind; whilst others again are led into bewildering notions and erroneous ideas on these weighty subjects.
These unhappy and deplorable circumstances, under which thousands are placed, should excite our tenderest sympathies, and prompt us to speedy and energetic efforts to ameliorate their condition and bring about a salutary, remedial reformation in regard to these ecclesiastical matters so manifestly wrong, and so much confused.
This benevolent object is primarily contemplated in the following work.
And should the summary view which the author has taken of this subject be the happy means to give information to the ignorant; to resolve the difficulties and remove the perplexities of the sincere inquirers after truth, and show them the right way of establishing and conducting the affairs of the New Testament church; or "to set in proper order the things that are wanting" [Tit 1:5] in those churches which are already established; and should it furthermore be the means to detect, show, and correct the mistaken and unscriptural views of the erroneous, and induce them to adopt the system illustrated on the following pages, so far as it accords with the doctrine of our Lord (and no farther), he shall  have accomplished his purpose, and consider himself amply compensated for his labor.
The author, however, is not so sanguine in his expectations on this subject as to believe that this publication will immediately correct and do away with all the lamented evils before mentioned, and produce a perfect reform in ecclesiastical polity. He does not expect, in the present imperfect state of things, that all the different views entertained by men respecting these things will be relinquished forthwith, and everybody adopt what he conceives to be the best, or the scriptural, view. To reform Christendom and save the world is no easy matter. The work of reform is the work of time. Old forms and opinions, though wrong, most men are loath to part with. This sentiment is beautifully expressed by the venerable framers of the Declaration of American Independence. "All experience," they say, "hath shown that mankind is more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed." Now, although this fact is undeniable, yet when both men and things are evidently going wrong, and the people love to have it so, we cannot always let them alone and remain guiltless. It is our duty to "overcome evil with good" [Ro 12:21]. And the more time any good work ordinarily requires, the more promptly and vigorously should an expedient and well-organized system of means be used for its accomplishment.
The great variety of opinions in religious matters, the numerous sects and factions, and the various forms of church government which exist at the present day strongly argue the necessity of a reform. For without controversy, "these things ought not to be" [Jas 3:10]. On this point all true Christians are agreed. Accordingly, many thousands have labored, not merely for "the unity of the Spirit" [Eph 4:3], but also for "the unity of the faith" [Eph 4:13] in matters essentially appertaining to the salvation of the soul and the prosperity of the church of God.
In this blessed labor of love many are now engaged. And from a sincere desire to assist all who are embarked in this work,  and especially in that of replacing church order to its original consistency, purity, and simplicity, the subsequent treatise is presented to the church and to a candid public.
Before I conclude, I beg leave to remark, that I sincerely hope no one will mistake my motives, and think that I am become their enemy because I have given "my opinion" on these subjects. When I do so, I am chargeable with nothing more than we all hold to be an inherent and mutual right. To a republican, as well as to a Christian, the rights of conscience and the liberty of speech and of the press are precious and unalienable privileges. These privileges, however, ought not to be perverted from their proper uses and made the occasions of strife, controversy, and war. Controversies I am much opposed to, because there is generally more loss than gain by them; and because there is often more religion in not contending than there is in that about which men contend. And were contending parties to sit down and consider how they shall account for their quarrels and contentions when at the end of their journey, they would not be so apt to fall out by the way. But if after all, some should take offense at this book, I venture to predict, that none will be more offended, and look at it with a more evil eye, than those who are most in the habit of binding great burdens, such as Creeds and Books of Discipline, and laying them on men's shoulders and consciences. And where do men get such a privilege from? Surely not from the Scriptures?
Nevertheless when they do, they want others not merely to be silent, but to justify them in the deed. I ask not this; I merely ask for unprejudiced investigation. Many things lie hidden from us for want of it. Did men but properly examine things for themselves, and take less for granted, there would be many more wise and good men in the world. I solicit those, therefore, into whose hands this little work may happen to fall, to peruse and consider what I have written concerning these things attentively, candidly and in humble reliance on the divine teaching. Jesus Christ says, "Learn of Me" [Mt 11:29]. Go then, dear reader, and take this book with  you to the school of Jesus. Read it; and as you read, test it by His doctrine. I don't ask you to try it by your "test of orthodoxy," or by any human creed; but try it, I say, by the Scriptures. And if, after a fair trial, you find its doctrine to be false, reject it; yea, I say again, reject it. But if, on the other hand, you should find that it contains the scriptural view of forming and ordering the affairs of the Christian church, then you will have but one duty left you with regard to it; namely, to receive and obey the same, which I pray God you may never want grace to perform. 
The Reformed Reader Home Page
Copyright 1999, The Reformed Reader, All Rights Reserved