A CHURCH IS A SINGLE LOCAL SOCIETY
THIS is clear:
1. From the meaning and use of the term. We read in the New Testament of "the Church" in a particular city, village, and even house, and of "the Churches" of certain regions; but never of a Church involving a plurality of congregations.56 "A bishoprick was but a single congregation."57 There is no trace of any other kind of Church, presbyterian, diocesan, or national.58
2 . From the history of the Churches in the New Testament. The Church at Jerusalem, the model after which the other Churches seem to have been formed,59 was a single congregation, which could meet together for social worship and the transaction of Church business.60 So also the Churches at Antioch, Corinth, Ephesus, &c., were all single congregations.61
It has been objected that the members of these Churches were too numerous to constitute a single congregation.62 But if the New Testament alludes, in these cases, to only one Church, and affirms that "the whole Church" did meet together and transact business in common, the objection is negatived by the authority of Scripture. The argument which attempts to disprove the congregational polity of the Church at Jerusalem, is similar to that by which the baptism of its members has been assailed. The narrative in Acts plainly intimates that the three thousand converts were baptized, (or immersed.) But it is objected that they were too numerous to be baptized, and therefore must have been sprinkled. In either case the baptized congregationalist rejects the unwarrantable assumption.63
It is not, however, material to the argument to prove that the members of a Church actually did meet together for social worship. The Scriptures inform us that this was the case at Jerusalem. In other cities, where the number of members was very large, local convenience may have been consulted; and there may have been portions of the Church that held their religious meetings in different places, but still constituting, as in some of our large cities, branches or arms of the Church located in those cities. This is rendered probable, by the existence of a plurality of bishops. It is sufficient to show that the Churches of the New Testament were single societies, that the members of a certain locality constituted a Church, not Churches, and that they were addressed by the Apostles, as a unit and not a plurality. Even if it be conceded, therefore, that the number of elders, found in the primitive Churches, was rendered necessary by their habit of assembling in different places of worship, this does not affect the congregational character of these Churches; since each body of elders was addressed as the officers of "the Church," plainly evincing that the community to which they were attached, constituted a single society.
3. From the large number of distinct Churches which are mentioned in the New Testament.
Churches seem to have been instituted upon the principle of local convenience. Whenever a body of converts were found, who could conveniently assemble together for the discharge of the duties of Church members, there a Church was organized. Hence we find separate Churches contiguous to each other. The Church at Cenchrea was only nine miles from that at Corinth.64 In the epistle to the Colossians the names of four distinct Churches occur, located within a distance of five miles.65 Five and thirty different Churches are referred to in the New Testament, besides a great many more that are comprehended in the general designation, "Churches of Asia," "Churches of Macedonia," &c.66
This view of a Christian Church is so obviously scriptural, as to have commanded the assent of a large number of historians and theologians. The following are a few of many authorities that might be cited:
"The simplest conception of a Church is that of a community of believers, dwelling in the same place, and associated for the promotion of Christ?s kingdom." Schleiermacher. Kurtze Darstellung des theol. Stud. ?277.
In the primitive age "a Church and a diocese seem to have been, for a considerable time, coextensive and identical. And each Church or diocese, and consequently each superintendent [i. e. bishop or elder], though connected with the rest by the ties of faith and love and charity, seems to have been perfectly independent, as far as regards any power of control." Archbishop Whately, Kingdom of Christ, p. 136.
"A Church I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord, in order to the public worshipping of God, in such manner as they judge acceptable to him, and effectual to the salvation of their souls." Locke, Letter I. on Toleration. Wks. fol. 2, p. 235.
"In no approved writers, for the space of two hundred years after Christ, is there any mention made of any other organical, visibly professing Church, but that only which is parochial, or congregational." J. Owen, Wks. 20, p. 132.67
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