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General Observations concerning the Church of Christ.
THE word in the original, ἐκκλησία, generally translated church, is found above an hundred times in the New Testament; and signifies an assembly of men, 224called and collected together, for some special purpose. It is used in the scripture, except in a few instances, in an appropriated sense for believers in Christ, or the redeemed, as a collective body, or society, united in, or under him as their head.
By the church of Christ is sometimes meant the redeemed: all who have been, or shall be saved by Christ, who shall at last be collected into one general assembly, society and kingdom. This is called the invisible church, being at present hid, and out of our sight, as those in heaven are not seen by us while in this life, and true believers, who are on earth, cannot be certainly distinguished from others who are not such.
The church of Christ on earth consists of those who are united together as professed friends to Christ, and believers in him, and are under explicit engagements to serve him, and attend upon all his institutions and ordinances, and to watch over, and assist each other; including both parents and their children. This is called the visible church of Christ, as it is a society erected in the view of man, and consists of members, who are visibly, or in appearance, among the number of the saved, and real friends to Christ, though many of them may not be really such.
This church is considered as one common catholic society, comprehending all visible christians in the world, composed of numerous particular societies, or assemblies of christians, in different places; and which, by a succession of members, will continue the same society or church, to the end of the world. This is meant by the church, when Christ says to Peter, “And I say unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”348348 Matt. xvi. 18. And the word is used in this sense, in many other places.—But every distinct society of visible believers, agreeing and united together to attend on the worship and ordinances of Christ, is called a church. As the church at Antioch; the church at Ephesus; the churches in Judea; the churches of Galatia; all the churches, &c.225
Wherever a number of persons voluntarily unite together, under the profession of believers in Christ, and friends to him, to attend upon his institutions and ordinances, according to his directions and commands, they are a visible church of Christ, so long, and so far, as they appear to embrace and maintain the great and essential truths of christianity; and to live in some good measure agreeable to them.
Concerning the church of Christ in general, his visible church in this world, and such a particular church, the following things may be observed, in order to give a more clear idea of the subject, and to show the reason and importance of it.
1. It is reasonable and important, that the friends of the Redeemer should be his professed friends; and that they should unite in a profession of faith in him, and publicly espouse his cause and interest in the world; and in assisting each other, as his servants, and in attending upon his institutions, and obeying his commands; hereby distinguishing themselves from the rest of mankind.—Accordingly, Christ has enjoined upon his friends and disciples, to confess him before men, and to form themselves into a public society, or particular societies, by which they shall be as a city, that is set on a hill, which cannot be hid; the light of the world, to shine before all men.349349 Matt. x. 32. v. 14, 15, 16.
2. The church of Christ is a free, voluntary society, in opposition to any force or compulsion used to oblige the members of it to join and come into it, contrary to their consent and free choice. All are invited to be members of it, and none are to be rejected, who appear to be willing to come and to conform to the rules which Christ has given; and none who have been received, are to be rejected and cast out, who choose to continue members, unless they behave disorderly, and refuse to obey the laws of Christ.
3. Jesus Christ is the sole legislator and ruler in his church. No particular church, or the church in general has any authority or right to make any laws or rules in order to govern or regulate the church, or individual members of it; but are commanded to attend to those 226which Christ has given, and obey and execute them only.
The church is not a worldly society; and is not to be ruled or regulated by civil laws, or rulers of political, worldly societies; such rulers have no more authority in the church, than any other member of it. The visible church is called in scripture, “The kingdom of heaven; the kingdom of God, and of Christ,” who said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” It is a distinct, and entirely different society and kingdom, from civil, worldly societies or kingdoms, and cannot be connected with them, so as to be in any respect or degree, dependent on them, or have any alliance with them. The church wants no support from civil authority, and ought not to be governed or controlled in any respect, by the civil magistrate. When he attempts this, and to make laws to govern or regulate the church of Christ, he invades the rights of Christ, and usurps the authority which belongs only to the Head of the church, who is the sole ruler in it.
The church when it is regulated by the laws of Christ, and obedient to him, is friendly to human, civil society; and Christ commands his subjects, the members of his church, to obey magistrates, and seek to promote the peace and greatest good of such societies! And all they expect or desire from the civil magistrate, is to be protected in the enjoyment of their civil rights, and their religion, so long as they are not injurious to their neighbours, and live quiet and peaceable lives.
4. Every member of the church has a right to judge for himself what are the laws of Christ, and what is his duty, being accountable to none but Christ for his judgment and conduct; and none have a right or authority to dictate to him, or control him in these matters. In matters wherein the church as a body, are to decide, and act, they must be determined by the voice of the major part, or the greatest number of the members, as is done in other societies; this being considered as the voice and determination of the church. And if they be not unanimous in any thing to be determined by the church, they who dissent from the judgment of the majority, must submit and conform to them; unless 227the judgment and conduct of the church appear to them so inconsistent with the truth, and the laws of Christ, that it is his command and their duty, to refuse to conform, and to leave and renounce the church. In this case, no one has any right to control them.
5. The visible church, the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, was small in the beginning of it; but is to increase and grow, till it shall be great, and fill the world, and all nations shall come into it, and be members of it; and shall continue forever the only, most happy and glorious society and kingdom. God has had a church in the world ever since the apostasy of man.—Before the flood, there were the sons of God, distinguished from the rest of mankind, who called on the name of the Lord. It continued in the family of Noah, and some of his descendants, till the days of Abraham, when it was more particularly formed in his family; and farther established and regulated among those who descended from him, the people of Israel. When the christian dispensation took place, the church put on a new form in many respects, though it was the same church, as to the essentials of it, and was still the church of God, the church of Christ.
The christian church, consisting of the professed followers of Christ, was small in the beginning of it; but Christ foretold that it should grow, and become great, and promised, that it should continue and live on earth, to the end of the world. He said the gates of hell. (Hades, death) should not prevail against it: That is, that it should not die, or cease to be a visible church on earth. He represented the growth of it, till it should cover the earth, and fill the world, by the following similitudes. “The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field: Which indeed is the least of all seeds; but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree; so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof. Another parable spake he unto them. The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.”350350 Matt. xiii. 31, 32, 33.228
6. The visible church of Christ is, and will be, in an imperfect state, and in a greater or less degree, impure and corrupt while in this world. All the members of it are in a great degree imperfect, corrupt and sinful; and many, who are totally corrupt and enemies to Christ, are professed and visible friends to him, and, as such, are admitted into his church. Christ has not made any provision, by which unworthy persons, who are not his friends at heart, can be excluded from his church in this world, so long as there are such who put on the outward appearance and profession of friendship and submission to him, and offer themselves to join the society. He has not constituted any infallible judges to determine who shall be admitted into his visible church, who are able to detect every hypocrite, and reject all who are unworthy members. When the utmost care is taken, and the rules of Christ with respect to this are faithfully regarded and practised, still the heart cannot be certainly known: and christians must act according to the visibility, or outward appearance and profession of friendship to Christ, which hypocrites may put on, and so be admitted into the church, who have no right to a place there in the sight of God. And the members of particular churches may be, and often are, so injudicious and careless, as to admit members which are visibly unqualified, and ought not to be admitted; by which the church becomes more and more corrupt, and proper discipline is not kept up; and those who ought to be cast out are tolerated: And by degrees, through the influence of erroneous teachers, great errors may be imbibed and maintained, and corrupt and evil practices take place; and many customs and rites be introduced, which Christ has not commanded; but are the inventions and commandments of men of corrupt minds, by which the purity and beauty of the church is greatly tarnished.
Particular churches, and the visible church of Christ in general, may become in a great degree corrupt in some or all those things: and yet be, and continue the visible church of Christ. And it is difficult to determine how far a particular church, or the church in general, may be corrupted and deviate from the laws of Christ, 229and yet be visibly a church of Christ, so as to have a right to be considered and acknowledged to be a true church, though corrupt and wrong in many things. In this case, particular christians must judge for themselves; and particular churches must judge of other churches; and great caution and prudence ought to be used: Every one ought to judge and act right, and according to the rules which Christ has given in this case, and all are accountable to him for their opinion and conduct.
A church may doubtless become so corrupt, and g6 off so far from the faith and practice of true christians, and sink so far into gross errors and open conduct, contrary to the gospel, and the express commands of Jesus Christ, as that it ought to be rejected, as not a visible church of Christ; and his commands to his faithful followers, may be, “Come out from among them, and be ye separate, and touch not the unclean thing, and I will receive you.”351351 2 Cor. vi. 17. The church of Rome, or the papal church, has doubtless been visibly not a true church of Christ for many years: It has been so, perhaps, ever since the time of the reformation from popery. Though it was really a corrupt, false church before; yet it was not visibly so, till the marks of a false church were clearly discerned, and it was known to the reformed visible church of Christ to be the beast, and the great harlot described in the Revelation. Then the voice of Christ was heard speaking to them, “Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues.” And then she was visibly and publicly excommunicated by Christ and his visible church; and consequently was no longer a visible church of Christ, but the contrary.
The reformed church, or the different churches which have taken place in the protestant world, upon the reformation from popery, and since, are far from being wholly purified from a great mixture of error, and from practices which are not according to revealed truth; and which would cease, were they to be conformed to the pattern described in the word of God: Some are nearer the rule, and others farther from it; and many 230are doubtless greatly degenerated from what they once were. And it is probable, that the spirit, maxims and practices of Antichrist, or that are really antichristian, do take place, in a greater or less degree, in all these churches, at this day; and that they will, the most of them at least, grow more and more corrupt in doctrine and practice, till they become like the incurable leprous house in Israel, which was ordered to be wholly demolished, that another might be built in the room of it. So, when the millennium comes on, these corrupt churches, which will be too far sunk in error and sinful practices, to be patched up and healed, will be removed and vanish away, sharing with Antichrist in ruin, and giving way to a church which shall be built upon the gospel plan. Then the bride, the Lamb’s wife, will put on her beautiful garments, and arise and shine in the light that shall then come, and the glory of the Lord which shall rise upon her.352352 See the Dissertation on the Millennium, subjoined to this System. But even then, the visible church will not be perfect in the beauty of holiness; though the uncircumcised and unclean may no more enter into it,353353 Isaiah lii. 1. yet not one of the members will be perfectly holy. The most perfect beauty and glory of the church will not take place till after the resurrection.
Those of different denominations and churches, in the christian world, who believe and expect there will be a more perfect state of the church in the millennium, are disposed to think, that the denomination and particular church to which they belong, will be the pattern; and that all christians will, in that day, conform to that, and that those things in which others differ from them, both with respect to doctrine and practice, will then be relinquished and cease. But most of them, if not all, will be greatly disappointed in their views and expectations with respect to this. A church will then arise, which will have all that is good, right and excellent, in the different denominations and churches, that exist now, or have been; and will renounce all the superstitions and corruptions, in principle or practice, which have taken place. Blessed are all they, who are real members of the invisible church of Christ.231
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