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CHURCH POLITY

CHAPTER XVIII
CORRUPTION OF SCRIPTURAL CHURCH POLITY

The simple and beautiful system of ecclasiastical polity which was established by the inspired founders of the primitive churches, retained only for a brief period its original perfection and symmetry. The innovations and corruptions which menaced it were distinctly foreseen by the apostles themselves. Paul said to the elders of the church of Ephesus, "I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock.253 John encountered the opposition of one of these disturbers of the peace, in the person of Diotrephes, who was so inflamed with the passion for preeminence that he rejected the authority of the apostle himself.254 Thus we find the germs of corruption existing even in the primitive churches. To anticipate their development and counteract their insidious influence, the apostles lifted their voices in solemn warning and remonstrance. Notwithstanding this, the churches began to decline from the apostolic order before the close of the second century, and even within the lifetime of some who had been contemporary with the inspired teachers. The causes and the manner of this transition will now be briefly indicated. While the early corruptions of church polity are to be ascribed mainly to the pride and ambition of the clergy, it must be confessed that other causes contributed to these deplorable results.

I. The excellences by which the primitive pastors were distinguished, proved one of the earliest occasions of corruption to the churches.

The position of a Christian pastor, in those days, was one of great peril. In all persecutions for the truth?s sake, the storm spent its fury chiefly upon him; and the steadfastness with which he endured its violence, entitled him to the love and confidence of his flock. To such men, who were ready to lay down their lives for the cause of Christ, the churches naturally supposed that they might entrust their dearest rights. Their members, scattered by persecution, and prevented from meeting together for the management of their ecclesiastical affairs, were induced by the necessity of the case to commit them to the hands of their pastors, and thus an unscriptural authority was given to religious teachers. This authority was, doubtless, at first faithfully exercised, and held as a boon, not as a right; but, in the course of time, the origin and nature of the trust were overlooked, and their ambitious successors claimed a divine right to dictate to the churches and control their movements. The tendency of power to pass from the many to the few, is strong under any circumstances; but it is particularly so, when the transfer is prompted by reverence for elevated piety, and gratitude for distinguished services. This was the case with the early churches. The lamentable consequences of their defection should prove a warning to all other churches, and impress them with the importance of guarding their rights against the aggression of even the most wise and pious men. Clerical despotism reaches its imperial elevation by slow and almost imperceptible advances; it is the first step that is the most dangerous.

The sentiment of respect for superior excellence, to which I have adverted, led, also, to a change in the relations of the ministers among themselves. "After the death of the apostles and the pupils of the apostles, to whom the general direction of the churches had always been conceded, some one amongst the presbyters of each church was suffered gradually to take the lead in its affairs. In the same irregular way the title of bishop was appropriated to this first presbyter."255

II. Another cause of the corruption of the apostolic church polity is found in the ascendency of the churches in the cities over those in the country.

The gospel was first preached in large cities such as Jerusalem, Corinth, and Rome; churches were founded in them, and thence, as from centres of influence, Christianity was extended in the surrounding regions. Visitants to the city were converted, and connected with the metropolitan church; and, in process of time, when their number became sufficiently large, they were constituted into churches in the country. These churches naturally looked to the mother church for aid and counsel, received their first pastors from it, and were in constant intercourse with it. They were regarded as branches of the metropolitan church. "In this connection and coalition, between the original church and the smaller ones that sprang up around it, began that change in the original organization of the apostolical churches which gave rise to the Episcopal system, and which in the end totally subverted the primitive simplicity and freedom in which the churches were at first founded."256

When the elders of the city churches came to have a president, or chief presbyter, charged with the general supervision of its affairs, his jurisdiction was extended over the country churches connected with it; and in this way diocesan episcopacy was introduced. Had the independence of the rural churches been maintained, this defection from primitive episcopacy could never have occurred.

III. The original polity of the churches was corrupted by the introduction of the doctrine that the ministers of the Christian church were the successors of the Jewish priesthood.

If this notion were true, of course the Christian ministry and the Jewish priesthood must be similar in rank and station. The bishop corresponded to the High Priest, the presbyters or elders to the Priests, and the deacons to the Levites. They were no longer incumbents in office at the pleasure of the people, and dependent upon them, but were divinely appointed to instruct and rule them. "When once the idea of a Mosaic priesthood had been adopted in the Christian church, the clergy soon began to assume a superiority over the laity. The customary form of consecration was now supposed to have a certain mystic influence, and hence forth they stand in the position of persons appointed by God to be the medium of communication between him and the Christian world."257 This unscriptural and impious dogma was the source of that ghostly tyranny which presumed to extend its empire over heaven and hell, opening or shutting their gates at pleasure, and by its subsequent ascendancy kept the Christian world for centuries in a worse than Egyptian bondage.258

Another effect of this doctrine was the claim on the part of the clergy to tithes for their support. Moreover, they argued that "if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory"?and therefore claimed superior contributions in tithes, and offerings to Christian ministers. "And what is still more extraordinary, by such wretched reasoning the bulk of mankind were convinced."259

IV. The institution of provincial synods, and afterwards of general councils, contributed its influence to the subversion of the primitive polity of the churches.

The first of these assemblies was held against the Montanists.260 They were composed originally of the representatives of independent churches, selected for the purpose of deliberating upon matters which affected their common interests. From these synods the laity was excluded; at least there exists no evidence to prove that any but the clergy took part in their deliberations. They were advisory bodies, and if their decisions assumed the form of laws, it was rather by common consent than as imperative enactments. It was not long, however, before they presumed to claim the right of giving authoritative laws to the churches. Their original character, as deliberative and advisory assemblies, was exchanged for one of higher pretensions, claiming legislative and judicial authority, and thus invading the independence of the churches.

These synods needed a moderator; and as they were usually held in the capital of the province, the presiding officer of the city church was commonly chosen. The position, which was at first yielded to him from a spirit of courtesy, was afterward claimed as an official right. The institution of these assemblies thus promoted at once the aggrandizement of the clergy in general, and the exaltation of one in each province to a position of vast and irresponsible power. "The practical effect of these councils, from the beginning, was to give increasing consideration and influence to the clergy, which continually increased, until it finally ended in the full establishment of the ecclesiastical hierarchy."261

The history of these ecclesiastical assemblies evinces that it is not without reason that the movements of similar bodies, at the present day, are watched with jealous solicitude. Associations and conventions ought to be restricted within their appropriate limits, as advisory and executive bodies. Any attempt on their part to invade the independence of the churches, by controlling their faith or practice, or assuming the supervision of matters which have not been entrusted to them, should be promptly and steadfastly resisted.

V. The doctrine of a visible church catholic may be enumerated among the causes which subverted the primitive ecclesiastical order.

This notion, which was early developed, necessarily blended the churches together under a uniform organization, which required a visible head, and led directly to the establishment of the papacy. To maintain uniformity, the central representative of sovereignty must be clothed with unlimited power over every portion of the vast confederation. That this doctrine is a misconception of the notion of Christian unity, and is unsupported by the word of God, has already been shown.

VI. The introduction of infant baptism was another cause of the corruption of church polity.

The grounds upon which this rite was introduced, by identifying it with regeneration, and making it essential to salvation, placed it in direct antagonism to the genius of Christianity. Besides imparting increased potency to the cause of corruption, which was already in existence, it exercised a direct and powerful influence upon the churches, and, in the end, effected an entire revolution in their polity. After its introduction, the churches were no longer composed of believers who had been baptised upon profession of their faith in the Redeemer; the distinction between real and nominal Christianity was obliterated: forms and ceremonies usurped the place of vital godliness; Christianity itself was virtually repealed; and the pure and benign system of Jesus of Nazareth degenerated into a profane and cruel superstition.

 
 
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