THE CHURCH OF CHRIST
THE word Church (in the original Greek of the New Testament, ekklesia), means a congregation, or assembly; and the character of the assembly, to which it is applied, is to be ascertained by the use of the term in each particular instance. In its sacred use, it is confined to two meanings, referring either to a particular local society of Christians, or to the whole body of God?s redeemed people.46 Of the latter meaning of the word, the following are instances:
Christ loved the Church, and gave himself for it. Eph. 5: 25. Gave him to be the head over all things to the Church, which is his body. Eph. 1: 22, 23. The general assembly and Church of the first born, which are written in Heaven. Heb. 12: 23.
It is this community of believers, the household of God, the whole family in heaven and earth, that constitutes the Holy Catholic Church, the kingdom of Christ in its internal development. It is one, and indivisible. Its members are known, certainly, only to Omniscience. Ordained unto eternal life before the foundation of the world, and in due time called, justified, sanctified, and glorified, they constitute the only real spiritual body of Christ, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all. Those who are members of this Church, and those alone, are interested in the benefits of the atonement, share the gifts of the Spirit, and enjoy the bliss which appertains to the communion of saints. Beyond its limits there is no salvation.47
The conception of the spiritual unity of the Church, which can be realized only by a living communion of all its members with the head, is clearly discerned in the instructions of Christ and his apostles, and is a glorious and precious truth. But it was soon misapprehended and perverted. The attempt was made to realize this unity in an outward church, possessed of an external visible organization, and embracing, among its members, all the professors of Christianity in the world. The unity of the Spirit, which consists in faith and love, was merged in a unity of outward form.48 The radical error of this theory consists in the assumption of an external visible union of Christians as the starting point from which to arrive at a real spiritual unity; whereas the reverse is the proper order of procedure. The primary and essential union of Christians consists in their connexion with a common head, and the possession of a common spirit; and particular societies of Christians can approximate to this unity, only in proportion as they realize in themselves the harmony and sympathy which distinguish the body of Christ.49
The minds of men had no sooner become possessed of this figment of a visible Catholic Church, than they saw the necessity of seeking for some visible head. This was indispensable to its completeness. Here we have the germ of the papal system, which has, at least, the merit of consistency; for the necessity of a visible head is a logical deduction from the doctrine of a visible Catholic Church. "Without a visible head," observes a distinguished Roman Catholic, "the whole view which the Catholic Church takes of herself, as a visible society representing the place of Christ, would have been lost, or rather would never have occurred to her. In a visible church, a visible head is necessarily included."50
The doctrine of a visible Catholic Church, although it seems to have been rejected by Luther, has been maintained by a large number of Protestants,51 and even some of the advocates of Congregationalism have, with singular inconsistency, embraced the same view.52 The subject demands, therefore, a thorough discussion. I am happy to say that Dr. Dagg, who has devoted much reflection to this topic, has, at my solicitation, furnished me with his views; and they are here inserted as a valuable and instructive addition to this work.
The question respecting the existence of a Visible Church Catholic, may be regarded, 1, as real,?2, as verbal.
I. As real. The real question may be stated thus: Do all who profess the true religion constitute one organized society?
The following doctrine is maintained by Dr. Mason: There exists in the world a great society, composed of all who profess the true religion. This society is so organized that the parts are united in mutual dependence, and furnished with a principle of living efficiency in one common system, so as to bring the strength of the whole to operate on every part, or through all the parts collectively, as occasion may require. This society possesses the power of self-preservation, which includes, 1. A power of commanding the agency of any particular member; 2. A power of combining the agency of all her members; 3. A power of providing for her nourishment and health; 4. A power of expelling impurities and corruptions. This society, with a regular succession of members, has existed visibly and publicly, from the days of Abraham to the present time.53
The following weighty objections lie against this doctrine:
1. It does not accord with the facts of history. All the professors of Christianity are not now so united, and it is certain that they have not been for ages past.
2. It favors the pretensions of the Roman Church. If any such society existed in the middle ages, its seat of power must have been at Rome.
3. The powers attributed to this society are inconsistent with the individual and personal responsibilities of its members. A power to command implies an obligation to obey. Now either the power must be exercised with infallible rectitude, or the members are bound to oppose it, and to obey God rather than men.
4. The Church organizations of primitive Christians did not extend beyond single congregations, which existed and acted independently of each other. Membership was voluntary, and no power was claimed to interfere in any wise with the individual and personal responsibility of any member. "To his own master he standeth or falleth."
5. The combination of individuals or of churches, for the purpose of exercising any controlling power whatever over the consciences of men, is the germ and spirit of Anti-Christ.
The doctrine to which these objections are opposed, is a corruption of the Scripture doctrine, respecting what theological writers have called the Invisible Church. The saints in heaven, with all regenerate persons on earth, form a society which is called, in the language of inspiration, the Body of Christ, the Church of Christ, the People of Christ, the Flock of Christ, &c. Eph. 5: 23?27; Matt. 1: 21; 1 Peter 2: 9; Luke 12: 32; John 10: 16; Heb. 12: 23. The oneness of this body does not depend on any external organization, but arises from a spiritual union of all its members to Christ. It is compacted, not by any external force, nor by powers conferred on the members collectively, for the purpose of consolidation and control, but by that which every joint supplieth. Love is the cement of the parts, and the principle of living efficiency, growth and strength which pervades the whole. It maketh increase of itself in love. Membership in this society is, in the highest sense, voluntary, and all controlling power belongs, not to the body, but to the living head, Jesus Christ.
A few texts of Scripture, in which the term Church is used, have, by a mistaken interpretation of them, been supposed to favor the doctrine of a Visible Church Catholic. Dr. Mason refers to six as proof texts of this doctrine. It is a very remarkable circumstance that three of these six texts refer to a period in the history of Christianity, when no church of external organization existed, but that which was at Jerusalem. This was not a Catholic Church as distinguished from a particular Church; and therefore these texts fail to prove anything in the question, except the difficulty of finding support for the doctrine in the word of God. The three passages are these: "The Lord added to the Church daily such as should be saved" Acts 2: 47. "Saul made havoc of the church"?Acts 8: 3. "I persecuted the Church of God"?1 Cor. 15: 9.
It is due, however, to the scheme of Dr. M., to say that it finds a Visible Church Catholic in existence at the period to which these texts refer: and it is due to the cause of truth to show that, in this very particular, the scheme involves incredible absurdity. He says, (pages 7 and 8,) "The Jews were not cut off till after the commencement and establishment of the new dispensation; that is, till after the Gentiles were taken in." According to this view of the subject, the excision of the Jews did not take place until after the conversion of Cornelius. Of consequence, the Jewish nation continued to be the Visible Church Catholic during the period to which the texts above quoted refer; and if they signify what they are cited to prove, their correct interpretation is as follows: "The Lord added to the Church;" i. e. to the Jewish nation. "Saul made havoc of the Church;" i. e. of the Jewish nation. "I persecuted the Church;" i.e. the Jewish nation. Comment is unnecessary.
Two causes have favored the misinterpretation of Scripture on this subject.
The first of these is an ambiguous use of the epithets visible and invisible. The saints in heaven are invisible to mortal eyes; but that part of the Church of the first born which still remains on earth, instead of being invisible, is a city set on a hill, that cannot be hid. The Saviour enjoined on his followers to let their light shine before men, that their good works, not their church organization, should be seen. The saints are distinguished from the ungodly world by their holiness of life; they need not a mark in their right hand or in their forehead, in order that their characters may be known and read of all men.
From the confounding of visibility with organization originated the remark of Dr. M.:54 "Nor is it to be imagined that he (Saul) was able to pick out the elect and persecute them." The objects of persecution were not rendered visible to Saul by ecclesiastical organization. He did not pick them out by searching for their names in some church book. They are called "the disciples of the Lord"?the saints?and their relation to Christ is clearly intimated in the inquiry, "Why persecutest thou me?" The persecution was aimed at Jesus and his genuine disciples, and the guilt of it was estimated accordingly; nor was it necessary, in order that Saul should persecute the true disciples of Christ, that they should, on the one hand, be separated from any false professors who might chance to be among them; or, on the other band, that they should be incorporated with these false professors, under some system of ecclesiastical government. Samson could burn the corn of the Philistines, without either separating the wheat from the tares or binding the whole in one great bundle. And a man may exclude the light of day from his chamber, though he neither "pick out" the sunbeams from the motes that float in them, nor press the light and the motes together into one consolidated mass. It should be remembered, however, that our present inquiry is not, whether the term Church includes, in its proper signification, false professors as well as true; but whether all professors, both true and false, constitute one organized society. So far, therefore, as the illustration of our present subject is concerned, it is of no importance whether the term wheat may properly signify the tares as well as the wheat; or the term light, the motes as well as the sunbeams. The only question is, whether one organized mass must be formed by the wheat and the tares, before they can be burned; or by the sunbeams and the motes, before they can be excluded.
Saul persecuted the Church when he persecuted such of its members as were within his reach. What was done to the part was regarded as done to the whole; and what was done against the members on earth was regarded as done against the head in heaven. On the same principle of interpretation we may understand the phrases: "Gaius, the host of the whole Church,"?Rom. 16: 23. "Give none offence to the Church of God,"?1 Cor. 10: 32. They import hospitality to saints generally, and offence to saints generally. But that the saints should be entertained, offended, or persecuted, it is not necessary that they should be united in a Visible Church Catholic. These phrases are two of the remaining proof texts of Dr. M., and, like the three before quoted, prove nothing to his purpose.
A second cause which has contributed to the misinterpretation of Scripture on the subject, is a secularized view of the Christian ministry.
The Saviour, at Pilate?s bar, declared, "My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight." In this declaration it is clearly implied, that the officers in his kingdom, like the kingdom itself, belong to another world. When he gave to Peter his great pastoral commission, in the memorable words, "Feed my sheep,?Feed my lambs,"?he prescribed spiritual duties, and appointed him a pastor, not to a single congregation, nor the Visible Church Catholic, but to the spiritual flock of Christ. The food administered is spiritual, and the recipients must be spiritual; the food is the sincere milk of the word. The recipients are the new-born babes who desire, and the believers, to whom Christ is precious. To suppose infant and adult members of the Visible Church Catholic to be intended, is a gross misconception of the Saviour?s design.
When Peter met with Simon the Sorcerer, who had professed faith in Christ and been baptized, he did not on that account recognize him as one of Christ?s sheep, and feed him accordingly; nor did he wait for the Church Catholic to bring its power to bear on this part of the great body, and expel the impurity. Peter regarded not his profession, but his spiritual state; not his relation to any visible Church, but his relation to Christ and things spiritual.
As Peter felt and acted, so felt and acted all the Apostles; and so they taught all the primitive ministers to feel and act. So Peter taught:
"The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed:
"Feed the flock of God, which is among you, taking the oversight thereof; not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind;
"Neither as being lords over God?s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock.
"And when the chief shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away." 1 Peter 5: 1?4.
So Paul taught the elders at Ephesus:
"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, which he hath purchased with his own blood."? Acts 20: 28.
So he taught his son Timothy:
"But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."?1 Tim. 3: 15.
These men referred every thing to eternity, and the heart-searching God. They regarded themselves as members of a spiritual body; and to their view the flock of God?the heritage of God?the house of God?the Church of God, consisted of those who were bound to them by spiritual ties, and whom they expected to meet in heaven.
The spirituality of the Christian ministry is vividly represented in 1 Cor. 12 chap. The body of Christ is one with many members, who are baptized into it by one Spirit, and drink of one Spirit. The eye, the ear, the hands, the feet, have their proper offices for the benefit of the whole. God hath set them in the body: and of none of them can it be said it is not of the body. All the diversities of gifts are from the same Spirit. >From that member which sustains the highest and most important office, to that which occupies the least honorable place, one spiritual sympathy extends, which pervades the whole and excludes the possibility of schism. Assuredly this is not a description of the Visible Church Catholic. No false apostles, no false prophets, no ministers of Satan, in the form of ministers of righteousness, belong to this body. God has not set such in it. The Spirit has not baptized such into it. Such have not a care for the body. Of all such it may, with truth, be said, they are not of the body. Yet such officers and members must belong to the body, if Dr. M.?s interpretation of the 28th verse of this chapter is correct. This verse is his only remaining proof-text; and, like all the rest, utterly fails, when rightly interpreted, to serve the purpose for which it was quoted.
The evils resulting from secularized views of the Christian Church and ministry, are incalculable. This cause gave birth to the Man of Sin, and all the lordship which has been exercised over God?s heritage. It has furnished, with sheep?s clothing, the grievous wolves that have devoured the flock. To it may be ascribed, in chief part, the divisions which have been the opprobrium of Christianity and the stumbling-block of infidels. Having lost the unity of the spirit, the professors of religion, lest they should, by the independence of the churches, and the uncontrolled personal responsibility of every member, "be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth," resolved to build a tower, whose top should reach to heaven, and to inscribe on it the motto, VISIBLE UNITY. But, as it happened to the builders at Babel, their language became confounded, and their mad scheme ended in discord and division. Carnal leaders draw away disciples after them; and those who follow in such divisions are carnal. "While one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal, and walk as men?" Many schemes have been proposed, for the healing of these divisions, by the amalgamation of religious societies, but all will prove abortive, till men return to the unity of the Spirit.
Having examined the question concerning the Visible Church Catholic, as real; we proceed to consider it
II. As verbal. The verbal question may be thus stated: Is the term Church properly used to denote all the professors of the true religion taken collectively? This is a question of comparatively little importance; yet it deserves consideration, on account of the close connection which is often found to subsist between errors of thought and errors of language.
Men may be classified with respect to any property by which some are distinguished from others. The tall, the wise, the honest, the aged, are classes of which we may have occasion to think and speak. But these classes exist as classes in our minds only. The individuals of each class exist separately and independently, and may, in fact, have less to do with each other than with individuals of other classes. So, all the professors of the true religion may be classed together, and may be thought and spoken of as if forming a company distinct from the rest of mankind. It is therefore possible that the term Church may be used to denote this class of men, without implying that they are united in a visible organization. But can it be so used with propriety?
1. The term which is rendered Church in the New Testament, signifies an assembly. Dr. Mason says, "Whenever it occurs you are sure of an assembly, and nothing more." Now all the professors of religion, though they form a class in our mental conception, do not form an assembly. They never have assembled, and they never will assemble except on the day of judgment; and even then they will be separated from each other?some on the right hand, and some on the left.
2. In many of the examples in which the term Church is in the Scriptures used in its Catholic sense, it clearly denotes the body of real saints. Of those examples in which it has been supposed to denote all the professors of religion, not one has been found that, on a careful examination, requires this interpretation. To assign a new meaning, without necessity, is not in accordance with sound criticism.
3. It is not necessary to suppose that the inspired writers, whenever they employed the term Church in its Catholic sense, had present to their minds the distinction between true and false professors. A field of wheat may be called a field of wheat, without any regard to tares which may chance to be in it. So the several churches were addressed as believers, disciples, saints, &c., without regard to false professors who might chance to be among them; yet the terms believers, disciples, and saints, do not acquire a new meaning from such application of them.
We may conclude, therefore, that the term Church, when used in its Catholic sense, denotes the body of real saints, as distinguished from all other persons; that it never denotes all the professors of religion, as distinguished from the body of real saints; and that it cannot include false professors of religion, unless it be in a vague and loose application of it.
It has been asked, Is not baptism the door into the Church? To this question it might be a sufficient reply, to refer to the tenth chapter of John, the only place of Scripture in which the door into the fold of Christ is
mentioned. But if we must furnish an answer from the analogy of faith, rather than by direct appeal to Scripture, it will be needful to find the house, before we seek for the door. If there is no such building as the Visible Church Catholic, all inquiry about the door into it must, of course, be useless.
Baptism has been placed, by Christ, at the beginning of all the outward duties which he requires of his followers. It is, therefore, an initiatory service. But all agree that, as in the case of the Ethiopian Eunuch, baptism does not introduce to membership in a particular church; and it is clear that an individual must be a member of Christ?s spiritual body, before baptism, or any other duty, can be acceptably performed. "Without me ye can do nothing."
For whose accommodation is this building needed, of which baptism is the door? It denies shelter, of course, to all unbaptized persons; and all regenerate persons are better provided for, having been admitted into Christ?s spiritual house. The only persons, therefore, who need it, are the unregenerate baptized, the followers of Simon the Sorcerer, who, while they profess Christ, are in the gall of bitterness and the bond of iniquity. Verily, for such persons, God?s wise master builders are not required to provide a building; much less have they been authorized to place one of Christ?s ordinances as the door into it. Pedobaptists have found difficulty in assigning a suitable apartment to their baptized infants; and have placed them, not so properly in the Church, as within its pale. Whether it would better accord with the analogy of this faith, to call baptism the gate, than the door, may be left for those to decide who are unwilling to keep the ordinances as they were delivered.
Baptism is not, like the Lord?s supper, a social rite. It signifies the fellowship of the individual believer with Christ, not the fellowship of believers with one another. The obligation to be baptized is independent of the obligation to form social relations with other disciples, and is prior. Baptism, is, therefore, a qualification for admission into a Church of external organization; but it does not confer membership.
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