Advantages of Scriptural Church Polity
BEFORE proceeding to enumerate the advantages of the divine plan of ecclesiastical organization and government, I shall present a condensed summary of the principles which have been established in the foregoing investigations. The Scriptures teach that the Christian Church?the Holy Church Catholic?is the spiritual body of the Redeemer, and is composed of those, in every age of the world, who are spiritually renewed, and vitally allied to their Great Head. Some have already ascended to heaven, others are serving him upon earth, and an innumerable multitude are yet to be born. The number will be complete when they are assembled at the judgment seat of Christ. This church universal has its earthly representative, or antitype, in a particular visible church. Each particular church is a local society, composed of persons who have been baptized upon a credible profession of faith in the Son of God, and have solemnly covenanted to walk together in the spirit of the Gospel, acknowledging Christ as their Lord, and his word as their infallible guide. Upon such a church, Christ has conferred the prerogative of self-government, under his laws. It is the right and duty of a church to interpret these laws for itself, and to declare what it considers the will of Christ to be, with reference to doctrines, ordinances, moral duties, the terms of communion, and church order, and to govern all its members accordingly; to receive persons to fellowship and to expel offenders; and to choose its own officers. In the execution of the laws of Christ, it is responsible solely to Him. Churches are therefore independent of each other, so far as coercive interference is concerned; yet they sustain an intimate relationship; are bound to promote, in all lawful ways, each other?s welfare; and to unite their efforts in the general advancement of the Redeemer?s kingdom. A church when fully organized is furnished with two classes of officers, one of them having special charge of its spiritual interests, the other, of its temporal or secular concerns. In these classes, there is no distinction in grade. All bishops are of equal rank, and so are all deacons.
Such is the scriptural church polity, as adopted by Baptist churches, in opposition to all other existing systems. It differs from all sorts of prelacy, Roman, Oriental, Episcopal, and Wesleyan, by the principle, that all the servants of Christ in the work of the gospel are of equal rank. It is distinguished from Episcopacy and Presbyterianism, by the principle that the only organized church is a particular church, a society of believers, who statedly meet in one place, for the transaction of its business. It, therefore, excludes every such thing as a provincial or national church, the aggregation of churches, and the centralization or consolidation of church power. It is distinguished from all churches established by law, by asking no aid from the civil ruler, and denying to him all right to interfere with its concerns. It differs from these systems by the principle that all church power resides in the church, and not in its officers; and resides in each church directly and originally by virtue of the voluntary compact of its members, under its divine charter. In fine, it is distinguished from all other systems by the principle that every individual is personally responsible for his religious acts and exercises, that no infant is born a member of the church, nor can be made such by any ecclesiastical rite, personal piety being insisted on as an indispensable qualification for membership.
In our estimate of the advantages of scriptural church polity, it is necessary to distinguish between the legitimate tendencies of the system and its actual results. As the gospel contemplates the perfect holiness of its possessors, but, in consequence of the deep-seated depravity of the human heart, never accomplishes it in the present life, so the direct tendencies of the divine plan of church order are retarded and counterworked by other influences, which prevent their complete development, in the actual condition of the churches. An approximation to the high standard of the Scriptures is all that can reasonably be expected.249
I. The scriptural church polity effects an entire separation between the church and the world, the regenerate and the unregenerate. By its requisition of personal piety in all who approach its ordinances and enjoy its special privileges, it gives to the household of faith a distinctive character, and makes it a witness for God, in the midst of a world lying in wickedness. Had the true principles of church polity been universally recognized, no ecclesiastical establishments would ever have existed, empowered by the civil magistrate to subjugate the conscience, and employing pains and penalties to enforce the reception of its dogmas. The spiritual despotism of pampered hierarchies would have been unknown, and the gospel would have been left free to achieve its triumphs by its own sublime and incomparable power. Christ?s kingdom is not of this world. His churches ask nothing of the civil ruler but what every citizen, Jew or Gentile, may lawfully claim?protection in the just exercise of their rights and privileges. They have no right to invoke the aid of government to sustain the distinctive institutions, rites, or doctrines of Christianity. Legal compulsion, in reference to the affairs of the soul, besides being absurd, is an impious invasion of the supremacy of the Most High, and the worst form which human tyranny can assume.250
II. Another advantage of the scriptural form of church government is, that it promotes general intelligence among the members of the church.
Where the government of a church is entrusted to one, or to a select portion of its members, the rest feel relieved of all responsibility; but where all are interested, and are solemnly charged with the management of its concerns, all must appreciate their obligation to study the word of God, devoutly and carefully, that they may become familiar with the great principles by which they are to be guided. The consciousness of occupying so solemn and dignified a position, cannot but exert the happiest influence on the mind. When it is remembered by the servant of the Lord Jesus, that it is his high privilege to share, directly, in the reception of members into the church, the exercise of discipline, the choice of officers, and everything else that affects the prosperity of the Redeemer?s kingdom, he has the strongest possible inducement to prepare himself for the proper performance of his duties. This is one of the most valuable peculiarities of our polity. Other forms may be expected to secure these advantages only in proportion as they approach the scriptural standard.
III. Scriptural church polity is best fitted to maintain the purity of the churches.
It is readily granted that the freedom of our government?the right of the people to choose their own pastors, and in every other respect to manage their own ecclesiastical affairs,?demands an aggregate of wisdom and piety greater than is needed under other forms. But it must be remembered that the scriptural church polity involves a scriptural constituency. The members of a church become such, only after an entire moral transformation. They profess to have been born again, taught by the Spirit of God, and brought into subjection to his will. Genuine piety in the mass of the members constitutes the surest pledge of purity, and the most effectual rampart against false doctrine, heresy, and general corruption. There is much less danger that the majority of the church will become unsound, than that a few men, claiming to be their authoritative guides, will swerve from the faith.
IV. It best secures the rights of individual members.
Should a member be aggrieved by any of his brethren, whether private or official, he may apply for redress to the church. He is not subject to the control, nor liable to suffer from the caprice, of any irresponsible power. Trial by jury is justly regarded as the palladium of personal rights. In a Christian church, a member, when arraigned upon any charge, enjoys the benefit of trial by a jury of his peers, composed of all his fellow-members. There is, therefore, every reason to expect an impartial verdict.
V. Another advantage of the scriptural polity is found in the motives which it suggests to diligence, activity, and fidelity in the ministry.
The direct accountability of rulers to the people is a principle of vast importance, and its beneficial influence is clearly recognized in the best forms of civil government. An officer of the church is amenable to his brethren for the proper discharge of the duties of his station. Should he become negligent, indolent, heretical, or corrupt, he may be deposed. He cannot continue, as under some other systems, to be an incubus to the church, and a scandal to the cause of Christ.
VI. Scriptural church polity is favorable to human progress,?to the establishment of free institutions.
It recognizes distinctly the democratic principle, that the people are the source of power?the fountain of all legitimate authority?while, at the same time, it guards against its abuses, by the limitations of a written constitution. The church does not interfere with the state, it enjoins obedience to rulers, and may exist under any form of civil government; but it cannot be denied that the spirit which pervades its polity is eminently conducive to the political welfare of mankind, and the general advancement of free principles. A people thoroughly imbued with the spirit of our ecclesiastical organization, republicans in church as well as state, will be faithful guardians of the public weal, and every church will prove a citadel of defence against tyranny. The intimate relation which subsists between ecclesiastical and civil freedom is too often overlooked. They are twin sisters, and live or die together. He who surrenders his religious rights to the clergy, or commits the keeping of his conscience to them, and submits to be ruled by them, whether in councils or conferences, renounces his Christian birth-right, and, as he has become the voluntary slave of a priest, he may, at any time, be made the vassal of a tyrant.251
VII. Another striking feature of the system which I have delineated from the word of God, and the last that I shall mention, is its simplicity.
It presents no imposing visible organization, recognizes no priesthood clothed with mysterious powers; symbolizes with none of the superstitions of the world, "gay religions, full of pomp and gold." The principles of church polity are level to the comprehension of all who are qualified for membership in a church. There are no wheels within wheels, inferior and superior courts of judicature, no intricate machinery, nothing in the government of a church which a plain man may not understand. Its practicability, under any circumstances, is one of its best recommendations.252
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