INDEPENDENCE OF THE CHURCHES
It has already been proved, that, according to the Scriptures, each Church of Christ is charged with the reception and discipline of its members, the election of its officers, and the general management of its affairs. This being the case, the independence of the Churches follows as a necessary consequence. The simplicity of this system of organization may not comport with the suggestions of human expediency. A more close and extensive combination, which should consolidate the Churches, fuse them into a compact and homogeneous mass, and centralize power in the hands of a select body, or of an individual, as the representative of sovereignty, may be preferred as best suited to develop and combine the energies of its component parts. But if this be the system which Divine wisdom has chosen, it is doubtless the wisest and the best. Experience has proved it to be so. It agrees best with the free spirit of Christianity, and is best adapted to the development of Christian life in the individual. It combines greater advantages, and is embarrassed with fewer difficulties, than any system which human ingenuity, pride, or the lust of power has ever devised.
It has been supposed that the transaction recorded in Acts 15, furnishes a precedent for a higher tribunal than a single independent Church. Writers on ecclesiastical polity have detected in the meeting at Jerusalem, a court of review, a synod or a general council, according to the bias with which they have, respectively, contemplated it. There is no just foundation for any of these suppositions. The case was altogether an extraordinary one. It sprung out of an exigency which could only occur in the incipient state of Christianity; and cannot, therefore, be pleaded in justification of subsequent assemblies, which undertake to legislate for the Churches, review their acts, and reverse their decisions. "In the above case there was no council of Churches held by their delegates. One Church sends messengers to ask information on a given subject. The answer is satisfactorily returned, and the instructions of the Holy Ghost are added concerning points of duty, in which all the Churches were interested. What assemblage of men, uninspired of God, can now say, "The Holy Ghost puts his seal to the decree which we send you, and you must keep it?" The above case then furnishes neither example nor authority for authoritative councils of Churches by their delegates."123
The independence of the Churches is attested by the highest authorities in Church history, as well as by many other distinguished writers.
"All the Churches in those primitive times were independent bodies; or none of them subject to the jurisdiction of any other. For, though the Churches which were founded by the apostles themselves, frequently had the honor shown them, to be consulted in difficult and doubtful cases, yet they had no judicial authority, no control, no power of giving laws. On the contrary, it is as clear as the noonday, that all Christian Churches had equal rights, and were in all respects on a footing of equality. Nor does there appear in this first century, any vestige of that consociation of the Churches of the same province, which gave rise to ecclesiastical councils and to metropolitans. Rather, as is manifest, it was not till the second century that the custom of holding ecclesiastical councils began, first in Greece, and thence extended into other provinces. " Mosheim, I. pp. 86, 142. cf. Gieseler, I. p. 103. King, ch. 8.
"Every Church had its own spiritual head or bishop, and was independent of every other Church with respect to its own internal regulations." Burton, Hist. Ch. p. 262, New York, 1839.124
" Every society of Christians formed within itself a separate and independent republic." Gibbon, 1, p. 273.
"It is certain that during the first century from the death of Christ, the several Churches which had been instituted by the apostles, or their successors, were entirely independent of each other." Tytler, Universal History, 2, p. 4. Guizot, Hist. Civilization, p. 52.
Some objections have been urged against the independent polity, which demand at least a passing notice. These are:?
1. It destroys the visible unity of the Church.125 It has been proved, in a former chapter of this work, that the visible Church Catholic is a figment of the imagination, destitute of Scriptural authority. If this be the case, the objection possesses no weight. The only kind of ecclesiastical unity contemplated in the Scriptures can be as well secured among independent Churches as any others. The principle of Christian union is the law of love. This divine element pervades the bosoms of all true followers of the Redeemer, and unites the various societies, into which they are divided, in one affectionate sisterhood. No other decrees are necessary to perpetuate this union, except the solemn command of their divine Master; and all attempts to effect the result by authoritative decisions of councils or coercive measures will prove abortive, or at best secure only a constrained and deceptive uniformity, the uniformity, not of faith and love, but of hypocrisy or servitude. Ecclesiastical systems, the growth of worldly policy, and stamped with the wisdom of human expediency, may dove-tail the Churches together, so as to present a vast and imposing visible confederation: the power of divine love alone can weld them in spiritual unity, and make them one family of Christ.
2. Another objection urged against our Church polity, is that it places too much power in the hands of the people. It is alledged that many Christian Churches are incapable of self-government; and one writer particularly deprecates, with pious fervor, the idea of "referring every decision to numbers and suffrages, and placing all that is good, and venerable, and influential among the members themselves at the feet of a democracy."126 It is readily admitted that the Bible system of Church governments is suited only to a Bible constituency.127 If churches are composed only of such as give credible evidence of having been taught by the Spirit of God, they may safely be entrusted with the management of their own interests. But when the door of admission is thrown wide open, and merely nominal professors are introduced, it becomes necessary to coerce and restrain them by powers higher than themselves; to curb them by courts and councils, or awe them by a hierarchy. It will generally be found that in proportion to the facility of admission into any Church is the stringency of its government. The Baptists recognize only believers as the constituents of a gospel Church and commit its government to its members. The Presbyterians, who, although they consider infants as "in some sort" members of the Church, yet exclude all but believers from full membership, are essentially republican in their form of government. They elect their own rulers. The Methodists receive applicants to their communion without the requisition of personal piety; and then excluding them from all participation in the government of the Church, rule them by clerical conferences. The Roman Catholics would cheerfully admit to the Church, by baptism, the whole human family, and then proceed to erect over them a ghostly tyranny, reducing them to due subjection by the rack, the stake, purgatory, and hell.
3. It is further alledged against the system of Independency, that it unfits the Church to perform, in her distinctive character, and through her own organization, her appropriate duty of extending the kingdom of the Redeemer throughout the world. To this it is sufficient to reply by an appeal to facts. The Churches of the New Testament were, as has been, constituted on this principle, and yet within a century after the death of Christ, they had pushed the conquests of his cross to the remotest limits of the civilized world. It is an indubitable fact that, in modern times, Churches founded on the principles of Congregationalism, gave the first impulse to the missionary enterprise; and they are, at the present moment, acting a conspicuous part in all the great religious movements of the age. Their sovereignty, as independent bodies, presents no obstacle to their cooperation in measures of common utility, in education, Bible and Tract distribution, and in general movements for the spread of the Redeemer?s kingdom.
The Reformed Reader Home Page
Copyright 1999, The Reformed Reader, All Rights Reserved