DEVELOPMENT OF THE SCRIPTURAL
PRINCIPLES UPON WHICH IT IS BASED.
Deductions from Previous Principles?
Church Sovereignty and Independence
DEDUCTION 1.?Local churches have exclusive jurisdiction over their members. This proposition asserts two things:?first, a local church has jurisdiction over its members; and second, this jurisdiction belongs to it exclusively. But they can both be proved by the same process. Here there is no room for abstract reasoning. The only proof admissible is that derived from the New Testament. To the New Testament alone, then, let the appeal be made. To the churches belong exclusive jurisdiction over their member, because,?
1. The Saviour gave them such jurisdiction. This is clearly implied in His directions to the offended brother, "Tell it unto the church; but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be to thee as an heathen man and a publican." Matt. xviii. 17.
2. Paul acknowledges this jurisdiction when he exhorts the Corinthians to discipline the incestuous man. "Do not ye judge them that are within? [i.e. your own members.] Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person." 1 Cor. v. 12, 13.
3. In the Revelations the Saviour commends one church for exercising it. To the church at Ephesus He commands John to write, "I know thy works, and thy labor, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil; and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars. But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate." Rev. ii. 2-6.
4. He condemns other churches for not exercising it, and enforcing discipline. To the church at Pergamos He says, "But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumbling-block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication. So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, which thing I hate. Repent, or else I will come to thee quickly," &c. Rev. ii. 14, 15, 16. To the church at Thyatira He says, "Notwithstanding, I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed to idols." Rev. ii. 20.
Now, jurisdiction implies supremacy and power. If "that woman Jezebel" could have refused to be tried, or in other ways to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the Church over her, then the church at Thyatira could have pleaded that it lacked the power to call her to account; or if others, either churches, church officers, or committees, had joint jurisdiction, the Church might have shifted the responsibility, and pleaded that she had been disabled by the opposition or indifference of others. No. It was the duty of the Church to restrain, or to put away to the professed followers of Christ, wicked persons; and the Church was vested with the power to do so. Hence the condemnation passed by the Saviour upon her and her alone. Under Christ, every local church has supreme jurisdiction over its members. It can, without permission asked of an offender, or of any other individuals or organizations in the world, arraign him, try him, condemn him, and, if need be, expel him. This jurisdiction is commonly expressed by the term sovereignty. Against the use of this term, of late, strenuous objection has been urged. This objection may be leveled either against the appositeness of the term to convey the idea, or else against the idea itself designed to be conveyed by it.
First.?Why is not the term an appropriate one? It is answered, "It is absurd to call that a sovereign body which is subject in all things. Christ is the only King in Zion, and, therefore, the only sovereign." This objection is urged by those who grant and maintain that every church is independent. The so-called independence of the churches, and the consequences drawn from it, constitute the main ground of their arguments against church sovereignty. Now, upon the same principles upon which they repudiate sovereignty, how easy will it be to show that there can be no such thing as independence. If the Church cannot be sovereign because it is subject to Christ, then it cannot be independent, either, because it is dependent upon Christ in all things. So, you see, it is as broad as it is long; and if there is no sovereignty, then there is no independence either. Upon the principle of the objections there is not now, and never has been, a sovereign State in the world; for God reigns supreme, the only absolute sovereign in the universe. In relation to God, all nations are subject and dependent; but in relation to their subjects and to one another they are sovereign and independent. So gospel churches, in relation to Christ, are both subject and dependent in all things; but in relation to their own members and to one another they are both sovereign and independent. So it will be seen that not absolute and incoherent, but delegated, sovereignty, is claimed for gospel churches. And all that is meant is, that under the law of Christ, in the enforcement of discipline, they have supreme jurisdiction over their disorderly members.
Second.?But it may be that the objection is leveled at the idea legitimately conveyed by the term "sovereign." Will any one maintain that a church has no right to arraign, try, and expel an offender, that in these things her members are not subject to her? Will any one maintain that it is optional with the member whether or not he will submit to a trial, when arraigned on charges before his church, and that a church, when endeavoring to put away from her number a wicked person, cannot succeed, unless she obtain his consent, and the consent of those that are without? If so, then is there no such thing as corrective church discipline. Members may withdraw from the church, but there can be no such thing as withdrawing fellowship from them; and excommunication will mean nothing more than that the disorderly member has given his consent to relieve the church from any further responsibility for him. If churches have not the Power to deal with and excommunicate disorderly persons without their consent, then, when the Saviour instructed the offended to carry the offender before the church, He but MOCKED HIM; when He praised the church at Ephesus for trying the false apostles, He gave them credit for that which was but TEMERITY and PRESUMPTION; and when He chided Pergamos and Thyatira for tolerating wicked persons, He unjustly held them accountable for that over which they had no control. It was their misfortune, and not their fault, that these disorderly persons were retained, since, according to the supposition, they had not the power to put them away. Surely, on reflection, it must be granted that, under Christ, every local church, in enforcing discipline, has supreme control of its offending members?that, in administering the laws of Christ, it has the power to discipline its members without asking the consent of them or of anybody else.
Sovereignty and independence are not synonymous terms. In an earthly kingdom, sovereign, as a term, is the correlative of subject, and implies the power to govern, either under law or without it, as the sovereign may be limited or absolute in power. Independence in a State marks its relations not to its own people, but to other States, and signifies freedom from control by other States. So church sovereignty marks the relation the church bears, not to other churches, but to its own members, and signifies her power to govern them, under the laws of Christ. Church independence marks the relation that the church sustains, not to her members, but to other churches, and signifies her freedom from their control. The sovereignty of a church is subverted, when her members successfully rebel against her authority; as when a member under charges refuses to be tried, and successfully tears himself free from her jurisdiction. The independence of a church is infringed upon when other churches, associations, or councils, either voluntarily, or at the instigation of her recusant member, interfere with her discipline, or otherwise attempt forcibly to control her. Under Christ, a local church is both sovereign and independent. It is not claimed, however, that she has the power to make laws. It is granted and maintained that Christ is the only law giver, and that all that is left for the Church to do, in the case of offences, is to administer and execute the law. It has no legislative power; but Christ has invested it with judicial and executive powers.
First.?The Church is invested by Christ with the power to arraign and try its members.
Question 1.?"But may not a member refuse to be tried?"
Ans.?He may SAY he refuses; and so may a citizen under the jurisdiction of one of our courts say he will not heed a citation. But what will be the result? If the suit be a civil one, and he refuses to appear, either in person or by attorney, it goes against him by default; if it be a criminal one, then one of two things will inevitably happen: either he will fall into the hands of the power he endeavors to elude, and be tried anyhow, or he becomes a fugitive from his country. A church-member in disorder may say he refuses to be tried; but if the church be true to Christ, to herself, and to the culprit, he will be tried notwithstanding.
Question 2.?"Suppose he does actually refuse to be tried: what then?"
Ans.?He only adds to his other sins those of contumacy and rebellion. "He neglects to hear the church" in its citations; and if he were innocent in all things else, persisting in this attitude, she is bound to make him bear the relation to her of "an heathen man and a publican." There is not a church in Christendom that would not feel itself in duty bound to expel one maintaining this attitude, whatever may be his characteristics in other respects.
Question 3.?"But suppose the arraigned differs from the Church in regard to the kind of offence and the method of proceeding?"
Ans.?The church is the only judge of the law and the fact; and her decision is final. Either the church or the arraigned is to decide all questions raised. If the arraigned, then no guilty person could be punished; for he would always quash proceedings on some plea. In the language of Bro.
J. S. Baker, in another connection, "Satan and his subjects are ever fruitful in inventions. An offender, therefore, will seldom want for a plausible objection to every rule of discipline that is applicable to his case, even though such be expressly given in Scripture." (p. 270.) In a previous number, it was shown that, in no event could injustice be done to an innocent man, if the church rule his offence to be "public," when he thinks it to be strictly "private." But it may be asked, "Is not something due the cause of Christ from an innocent man accused? and does he escape responsibility and sin, if he permits the church to go on in violation of the law of Christ?" To this it is answered, that if he raises the point of order, and the church overrule him, not he, but the church, is responsible. Whatever sin there may be in the sight of God and man, he is free from it. But, besides, what else can he do to stay proceedings, without himself committing a greater sin than that he so conscientiously protests against? Shall he conscientiously attempt to arrest proceedings by rebelling against the authority Christ has committed to His Church, and refusing to be tried any further? Strange conscientiousness that, which attempts to prevent another from committing a sin by perpetrating a greater sin itself! And, besides, conscientiousness in this connection can with difficulty be distinguished from an attempt to evade justice. This is precisely the course a wicked man would pursue,?one who is fighting for victory, or to thwart an adversary in the church,?if he dared to do so, and was convinced that he had a sufficient number outside of the church to sustain him. A man does not show his conscientiousness by acting on the principle, "Let us do evil that good may come."
Question 4.?"But does not a church that rejects the law of Christ as laid down in Matt. xviii. cease to be a church of Christ, and is not the member released from all obligations to it?"
Ans.?Please stick to the original proposition. The case before us is this:?On a point raised by the arraigned, the church thinks the offence comes under 1 Cor. v., while he thinks it comes under Matt. xviii. Here the church rejects not the law, but the offender?s interpretation of it. The most that can be said, then, is that the church has willfully or inadvertently misapplied the law. The latter will always, in a judgment of charity, be ascribed to her. In "mixed offences,?? (see Chap. I. of this series,) where the act is a crime against religion and morality, and the object of it a brother, it is always easy for an offender who is a designing man, or whose head is confused, to mystify the minds of others by raising a point of this kind. Bear in mind, however, that, according to the supposition, the church does not avowedly reject the law of Christ, but only commits an error in its application. If, then, the objection contained in your question has any force, see to what it brings us. See what is the general principle that must be deduced for the offender to stand on and be sustained in his rebellion against the church. It is this:?Whenever a church commits an error, it becomes annihilated. On this principle, there is no church now in the world; for all have, during their existence, made mistakes and committed errors. We are happy, however, to know from the Scriptures that such an effect does not follow from such a cause, and that the world is not in this sad and irretrievable condition. The church at Corinth for a long time permitted an incestuous man to remain quiet and undisturbed in her communion; and division and party spirit raged within her borders. Some were for Paul, and some for Apollos, and some for Cephas, and some for Christ. Here were grave errors, serious omissions of duty, and reprehensible sins. Was the church at Corinth annihilated? Paul did not seem to think so. And we nowhere read that the incestuous man, when arraigned, raised this point, and barred off the infliction of the penalty due to his crimes by declaring the church annihilated. Against the majority of "the seven churches which are in Asia," Christ brings serious accusations. To one He says, "I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love;" two others He chides because they retain among themselves disorderly and wicked persons; to another He says, "I have not found thy works perfect before God." "I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead;" and to another still He brings the charge of lukewarmness, threatening to spew it out of His mouth. Yet His apostle, in addressing these very things to them, styles them "the seven churches which are in Asia." It cannot be true, then, that when a church commits an error in the application of the law in Matt. xviii., or in any other way, it becomes annihilated.
But suppose we grant, for the sake of the argument that the commission of an error by her will annihilate the church: then the question comes up, who is to decide that an error has been committed, and that the church has been annihilated? The arraigned man? If so, what designing and wicked persons can be tried? How easy will it be for an unscrupulous man to join issue with the church on some point he may raise, whether pertinently or not, and thus annihilate the church and ward off from himself the retribution due to his crimes! How many criminals arraigned before our courts of justice would be condemned, if it was the prerogative of the prisoner at the bar to decide all the points of law raised by his counsel, with whom he is in collusion? Nay, more: what prospect would there be of enforcing the criminal laws of the country, if the prisoner at the bar had the power to disband and annihilate the court whenever it differed from him in the interpretation of law? Whenever one arraigned before a church makes such a plea as this, it proves nothing more than that he has no better plea to urge.
On the subject of the right and duty of a church, when even a purely "private" case has been informally brought before it, Bro. Joseph S. Baker speaks conclusively and forcibly as follows:?
"A. charges B. with trespasses committed against himself, before he pursues the course prescribed by the Saviour. B., in return, charges A. with a violation of the rule to which we have referred, and pleads, perhaps, that the church has no right to deal with him, as the case was informally brought before it. Such a plea is evidently invalid. The truth is, they are both offenders, and the church is bound to investigate and to act on the cases of both. But, as she cannot act on both simultaneously, the question may arise, which case should be first taken up? We answer, unhesitatingly, the case of B.; and that for two reasons: 1st. Because the offence of B. was committed prior to that of A., and was first brought to the notice of the church. 2d. Because A?s offence grew out of that of B. Properly, therefore, to adjudicate the case of A., we must acquaint ourselves with those circumstances in the conduct of B. which tended to aggravate or palliate the offence of the former. But to do this it would be necessary to enter fully into the investigation of the conduct of B. The case is as clear as the sun in a cloudless sky at noonday.
"We have frequently known churches to dismiss cases indefinitely, because there was some irregularity in the manner in which they were brought before them. These generally prove, too, FINAL dismissions. If we are right in the views expressed in the preceding part of this article, that church is wrong which pursues either of these courses. ?He that knoweth to do good and doeth it not, to him it is sin.? By parity of reasoning, that church which knows of the existence of an evil in it, and neglects to correct it promptly, must be viewed as guilty before God.
"When an individual is charged with criminal conduct, if, instead of replying to the charges brought against him, he endeavors to criminate others, he affords strong presumptive evidence of his own guilt. He acts upon the same principle with the thief, who, when the officer of justice and the mob are at his heels, raises the cry, and cries loudest of all, ?Stop thief! stop thief! ?His principle is to evade justice by diverting attention from himself to some other individual. To prevent your plucking the beam out of his own eye, he would set you to picking at the mote in his brother?s eye."?Periodical Library, Vol. 1, No. IV. (1847), pp. 264, 265.
It must be granted that the church possesses judicial power,?that it has the right to arraign and try its disorderly members.
In the last number it was shown that the Church, in the exercise of delegated sovereignty, has the right to arraign and try its disorderly members; and that such members can in no way escape her jurisdiction. To what was said there, it might be added, If the Church has not such jurisdiction as will enable it to arraign and try its disorderly members, then one of two things must be inevitably true: either the disorderly members are irresponsible and can be arraigned by nobody, or else they are subject to a jurisdiction outside of the Church. If the former be true, then the Scriptures authorize no corrective discipline, and there is no remedy for disorder and crime. If the latter be true, then to whom does such jurisdiction belong? To preachers and committees? Then should brethren cease their denunciations of Methodist circuit-riders and their committees for exercising this very prerogative. Does this jurisdiction belong to other churches, to associations, or to councils, whether directly or by appeal? Then are we Presbyterians in fact, if not in name. Surely it must be granted that local churches have the power to arraign and try their disorderly members. Now, if in these things disorderly members are subject to their churches, in these things have their churches the sovereignty over them. It remains to be shown in this connection?
2. That the Church has executive authority. She can expel all whom she tries and condemns. "Therefore, put away from among yourselves that wicked person." 1 Cor. v. 13.
Question 1.?"But can a church expel by majority?"
Ans.?It is always desirable that in a matter of such serious import as the expulsion of one from the privileges of the fold of Christ, there should be unanimity. In some of our churches, therefore, there is a rule requiring that in all matters touching fellowship the vote shall be unanimous. And the custom is to inquire of the minority whether they will acquiesce in the decision of the majority. If they consent to submit, and thus promise not to make this difference of opinion the ground of alienation and confusion, the inquiry proceeds no further, and the decision of the majority is recorded. But if the minority refuse to acquiesce, then the custom is to labor with them to bring them to right feelings and right views. This effort is to be made with patience and perseverance. It may be that the majority may become convinced that the opposition is well founded, and that they may be induced to stay proceedings, and to reconsider their action. But if it be manifested that the opposition is factious, then it is customary to require the minority to submit, and, if they refuse to obey, to treat them as public offenders, and, if necessary, to expel them. While the design of all this is to produce, if possible, harmony and unanimity, it is, at the same time, an assertion of the right of the majority to rule, and the duty of the minority to submit.
The assertion implied in the question at the beginning of the above paragraph is, No one can be expelled excepting by a unanimous vote; i.e. if any member objects. If this proposition be true, then if the woman whom the incestuous man at Corinth was claiming as his wife had been a member of the church, or if any other man in the church had been guilty of the same crime, he could not have been "put away." If but one should vote no, to the proposition to expel, the vote would not be unanimous. Then two wicked and abandoned men may mutually retain each other in the church, though one thousand should vote to put them away. Can a principle be correct which involves such consequences as these? Bro. Baker, in reasoning against the absurd proposition that the minority can "demand the exclusion of an individual whom the majority believe to be innocent," incidentally, but conclusively, answers the question above. After showing from the Scriptures that the decisions of the Church were ordinarily made by the lifting up of the hands of its members, he observes, "Now, we cannot account for this voting, by the lifting up of the hands, if it was not to ascertain the will of the majority. But we are not left to infer from general principles the course pursued by the primitive Church in the exclusion of members. We have the express testimony of an inspired apostle that in at least one case of exclusion the individual was excluded not by the few, but by the many. ?Sufficient to such a man [one that had been excluded] is this punishment WHICH WAS INFLICTED OF MANY.? 2 Cor. ii. 6. The word here rendered ?many? is pleionon, which signifies the greater part,?the majority. On this subject, then, the Scripture is explicit and conclusive: NOTHING CAN BE MORE SO. That passage is sufficient, of itself, to show what was the practice of the Church in apostolic times."?Per. Lib. p. 324.
Question 2.?"But may a minority never pronounce a majority to be no longer a church of Christ, and declare themselves to be the true Church?"
This question is answered unhesitatingly in the affirmative. There are cases in which a minority may pronounce the majority no longer a Church. But please notice the discriminations that are made, and the grounds upon which alone the question is thus answered. Whenever the Church, not only in fact, but ostensibly and by profession, departs from the faith and order that Christ has given, it ceases to be a Baptist church. For instance: If it, by act and by profession, denies the parity of the ministry, and introduces episcopacy; if it denies that the immersion of a professed believer is alone baptism, and avows and practices infant sprinkling; if it rescinds its articles of faith, and substitutes for them avowedly the doctrines of Campbellism or any other heresy; if it should by resolution deny church sovereignty, i.e. its jurisdiction over its disorderly members; if it should deny church independence, and subject itself with other churches to a form of Presbyterianism, making appellate tribunals in a series rising from conferences through councils, associations, and General Associations, up to General Conventions; if she should by vote and record declare that drunkenness, lying, fornication, theft, libel, profanity, and other crimes that the Scriptures reprehend, are no crimes, and avowedly encourage her members to practice them; if by vote and record she decides to do these, or any one of them, a minority may pronounce themselves the true church, and the courts of the country would sustain them in their claim. But, you perceive, this is not the case before us. In my admission, the persons protesting and unchurching are not the parties arraigned, or otherwise personally involved, but those who, having nothing personally at stake, are standing up solely for the honor of the Master and the constitution of His Church. They are struggling not to keep off censure from themselves, but to prevent the Church from being metamorphosed into a synagogue of Satan, or into another form of Christian organization which they do not consider scriptural. But this has no pertinence to a case of discipline, where the charges are for such things as are recognized to be crimes by the Scriptures.
This is the question you ought to have asked:?"Can an arraigned man and his supporters, the minority, pronounce the majority no church, because of the manner in which they conduct his trial? and can they relieve him from expulsion by proclaiming themselves as alone the true Church?" To answer this question in the affirmative, and to practice on this principle, is to make it impossible to discipline a plausible and wicked man, and to rend a church into fragments every time it may attempt to enforce discipline upon a man of this kind. How easy would it be for such a one to plant himself upon some great scriptural principle, which he may arbitrarily insist is applicable to the case, and, if the church should deny its applicability, to go off accompanied by his relations, his personal friends, and his business associates! If he is adroit, he may even succeed in mystifying many honest and disinterested minds. But my objector wishes to bring me back to the admissions I have made in answer to his first question; and he wishes to inquire,?
"Are not the Saviour?s directions for the government of private offences of vital importance? If, then, the majority of a church, in the management of a case of discipline, disregard those directions, cannot the minority (leaving the arraigned out of the question) stand up for the Saviour?s rule, and unchurch the majority?" Let us see what you mean by "disregard." First. The Church may honestly mistake that for a public which is merely a private offence; or, Second, Knowing and acknowledging it to be a private offence, prematurely introduced, it may decide to entertain it anyhow. Let us see whether either of these is a "disregard" of the Saviour?s directions, and whether they furnish sufficient grounds for the minority to unchurch the majority. If the majority honestly mistake the nature of the offence, it has only committed an error; and we have shown in the previous number that a church is not annihilated whenever it commits an error. For the same reasons, a mistake made by the church in reference to the nature of an offence does not furnish sufficient grounds for a minority to unchurch the majority. But, second, Suppose the majority, knowing and acknowledging that it is a private offence prematurely introduced, should nevertheless entertain it: what then? I answer, they may, like Bro. Baker, and other distinguished writers on church discipline, believe that these directions are addressed primarily to the offended, to guide his deportment, and that the church has the right, if it think best, to take into consideration the conduct of her offending member, even though the case may have been irregularly and, if you please, wickedly brought before her. In all this these writers may be mistaken; and the church, in acting on this principle, may commit an error without designing to "disregard" the instructions of Christ. Now, as has been shown already, an error unintentionally committed does not annihilate a church, nor does it afford ground sufficient for a minority to unchurch the majority. Infallibility does not reside in a church, either in its majority or in its minority. On a question whether a church can entertain a private offence prematurely and irregularly introduced, honest differences of opinion may be tolerated; and surely a mistake on the subject cannot involve annihilation. If a church were by vote and record to resolve that it would "disregard" or erase from the Revelation received by it the 18th of Matthew, or any other part of the Scriptures, great or small, it would resolve itself into an infidel fraternity, and the believers in its midst should repudiate and denounce it. But surely the avowed rejection of the 18th of Matthew, and the erroneous application of its law, while its binding force is acknowledged, are very different things.
So it will be seen that a member under dealing cannot escape expulsion by retiring with a minority of the church; and that such minority, so far from shielding him by their rebellion, subject themselves to the same penalty he endures. There is not a church in Christendom, true to the Master and to herself, that would not, in these circumstances, expel all her recusants. And if the revolters should afterwards, with or without organization, call themselves the church, or a church, whatever else they may be, they are not a Baptist church, which we consider to be synonymous with a gospel church. Whatever may be their pretensions or their claims, they are excommunicated Baptists, and should be so regarded and treated by all who reverence the authority of the King in Zion.
In conclusion, then, it must be granted that in the exercise of delegated sovereignty the Church has executive authority. She can expel all whom she tries and condemns.
Question 3.?"Can a church expel a minister without the intervention of a Council or Presbytery?"
The answer to this question must be reserved to the next chapter.
The Reformed Reader Home Page
Copyright 1999, The Reformed Reader, All Rights Reserved