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Concerning the Officers of a Church.
EVERY distinct and particular church, in order to be complete, and properly organized, must have officers, or persons distinguished from the members in general, by being chosen and appointed to particular service and duties, who are to superintend the affairs of the church, to preside and act a particular part, in teaching and exhortation, and administering the ordinances which Christ has appointed; and taking particular care of the temporals of the church.
Of these, pastors, elders, presbyters or bishops, are the first and most important. By these names, not different orders, higher and lower, or different offices, are meant; but one and the same person, in one and the same office, is called by all these names; and therefore they denote the same office. This has been abundantly proved by many who have attended to the subject; therefore it is needless particularly to attend to it here.
The apostles were a distinct and superior order of men, and appointed by Christ immediately, as extraordinary officers, to constitute the first churches, and to give infallible rules and laws to them, by which they were to be regulated and governed: In which extraordinary office they had no successors. The apostles were elders, or presbyters, or bishops, and more; they were appointed immediately by Christ, as infallible judges and dictators to the churches. They ordained presbyters or bishops, as being such themselves, in their ordinary capacity; but their extraordinary commission was not, nor could be transmitted to others; but died with them: And there have been no apostles in the church since their death; nor will there be any such officers again in the church, to the end of the world.
The apostles ordained elders or bishops in the churches which they constituted, who were first chosen by the members of these churches, or they did it with their consent. “And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and prayed with fasting., they commended 232them to the Lord, on whom they believed.”354354 Acts xiv. 23. The word in the original, here translated, when they had ordained, χεὶροτονησαντες, signifies to point out persons by lifting up of hands, or voting, and the sense has been given in the following words: “When they had, with the concurrent suffrage of the people, constituted presbyters for them in every church;”355355 Doddridge on the place. or, “They ordained them elders by the votes of the people.”356356 Mr. Harrington. The old English Bible translates it, “When they had ordained them elders by election.”357357 See Doddridge’s note on this verse. This is essential to a free society of any kind, that the members of it should choose their own officers. There must be one or more elders in every church, in order to furnish it to all the duties and transactions of a church, and to have it complete. From the above quoted passage it appears, that one elder was ordained in every church, if not more. It appears also, from the addresses which Christ sent to the seven churches in Asia, by his servant John, that there was but one elder in each of these churches, who is called, the angel of the church.
The business of this office is to preside in all the transactions of the church; to administer the ordinances of Christ, to preach the gospel, and lead in the public worship of the church: “Giving themselves constantly to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.”358358 Acts vi 4. To teach, exhort, warn, reprove and rebuke, publicly and more privately. The qualifications and character of these elders or bishops are particularly given and stated by the apostle Paul, in his letters to Timothy and Titus. These pastors or bishops, being chosen by the church, are constituted officers, by being publicly ordained to that office, by some other elders or elder, by laying on of hands.359359 1 Tim. iv. 14. v. 22. 2 Tim. i. 6. Thus Timothy and Titus were directed by the apostle Paul to ordain elders.360360 1 Tim. v. 22. 2 Tim. ii.2. Tit. i. 5.
It has been supposed by some, that the right and power to ordain their pastors or bishops, is in the churches; at least that it is not wholly lodged in the hands of the elders, and confined to them: And there have been some instances of the ordination of ministers by the 233brethren of the church, without the assistance, or even the presence of any other elder or pastor of a church. But there does not appear to be any example of this, or warrant for it in the scripture. It is said, if the church have no authority or right, to constitute and ordain their own officers, then there must be an uninterrupted succession of ministers, from the apostles to the end of the world; and if this chain of succession be once broken or interrupted, it cannot be renewed again; but the succession must necessarily cease, and there can be no more ministers and officers in die church to the end of the world. To this it may be answered, that if this be an appointment of Jesus Christ, a constitution which he has made, that his church shall be furnished with ministers, by such a succession from one to another; then he will take care, that it shall never be interrupted, but shall be continued, so long as there is a church on earth.
But to this it has been said, that we have no evidence, that such succession has not in fact been interrupted many times; and not one minister or elder at this day can prove, or have any evidence himself, that he has been ordained, by one or more, who have received this right and power, to ordain by an uninterrupted succession from the apostles; which he ought to have, in order to be satisfied, that he has a right to act in this office; and to be able to prove it to others, in order to their receiving and treating him as an elder. Besides, if this succession could be proved, it must be brought down through the hands of the pope, and the false antichristian church, which is not the church of Christ; and necessarily interrupts the succession of the ministers of Christ.
Upon this the following things are to be observed.
1. If there be evidence from the scriptures, that such an order and succession of men, as officers in the church, has been instituted by Christ, and is implied in the commission which he gave to his disciples, “Go ye, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; teaching them to observe all things, whatsoever I have commanded you: And lo I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.”361361 Matt. xxviii. 19, 20.—This is sufficient, positive proof, 234that such a succession of ministers does in fact take place in the visible church of Christ; and that this commission has been transmitted down from one to another, from that time to this day; and this succession has not been interrupted, and will not be, to the end of the world. This therefore may safely, and with all desirable certainty, be taken for granted, without any farther positive proof, by every minister of the gospel; unless there be strong positive evidence, that such succession has been interrupted, with respect to him; and that he has been irregularly introduced to that office, by him or them, who have not had their commission and authority to ordain, handed down by succession, from the apostles to them.
Therefore, since the above recited commission implies, that there should be a succession of officers in the church to the end of the world, to proselyte, baptize, and teach men, to observe the institutions and commands of Christ, to whom he has promised his presence and assistance: and since the apostles appear to understand their commission in this light, and to practise upon it accordingly, by ordaining elders in every church which they formed: and elders or presbyters, ordained others by laying on their hands; and they who were so ordained were directed to commit the gospel, that is, the preaching and dispensation of it, “to faithful men, who should be able to teach others also;” and to lay hands upon them, not suddenly, but after proper examination and acquaintance;362362 1 Tim. v. 22. 2 Tim. ii. 2. which can be nothing less or more than ordaining them to the work of the ministry: And Titus is directed to ordain elders in every city in the island of Crete:363363 Titus i. 5. Since all this is evident, and certainly so; and there can nothing be found in the scripture to contradict such a succession appointed by Christ, or in the least inconsistent with it; it may and ought to be considered as positive evidence that there is, in fact, such an uninterrupted succession, sufficient to satisfy the judgment and conscience of an honest man, who is ordained to the work of the evangelical ministry, that he has derived his ordination and commission from Christ, by an uninterrupted succession; unless there be positive proof to the contrary, with respect to his ordination.235
2. Though the succession of ordinations, in order to its being uninterrupted, must come through the hands of the pope, and the ministers of the church of Rome, (which is not certain, as it has been shown, how it might be transmitted down by others, who were not members of that church) yet this affords no positive proof, that a proper, uninterrupted succession has not taken place. A visible church may be very corrupt, and yet be a visible church of Christ, and the public administrations and acts of the officers of it, authentic and valid. And who can prove, that the pope, and his adherents, were visibly antichrist, and that the church of Rome was visibly, not the church of Christ, but a false church, and was really and properly renounced and excommunicated, by the true church of Christ, before the time of the reformation from popery? During the preceding dark times, there was not light enough, even among real christians in general, to render that church visibly not the church of Christ; and so long as this was the case, the officers, the ministers in that church, were visible ministers of Christ, and their visible acts, their ordinations, &c. were valid, notwithstanding they were very corrupt and wicked.364364 A minister in the purest church may be a very wicked man, and practise abominable vices: But so long as this is not visible and known, he is a visible minister of Christ, and his public administrations are as authentic and valid, as those of any other minister, until he is detected, and his wickedness becomes visible, and he is deposed from his office in the church, by those who have a right to do it, according to the laws of Christ. So the church of Rome was visibly a church of Christ, till there was light to discover, or eyes to see the corruptions and wickedness of it, and the veil and covering was taken off, so that the marks of the beast, and the great harlot, described in the scripture, were publicly seen to be upon it; and events took place, by which it was visibly rejected by Christ, For the great apostasy, of which the members of it had been guilty, and who continued visibly impenitent. When the reformation came on, light arose and increased, and the great corruptions and wickedness of the church of Rome, and of particular churches, included in it; and the irregularity and wickedness of the officers of it, and of their administrations, were clearly seen and exposed; and they were admonished, and great pains were taken to convince and reform the pope and his clergy, and all orders and degrees of men in that church. But they who still adhered to that church were deaf and obstinate, and refused to repent 236and reform. Upon which, those who were convinced of the errors and wickedness of that church came out and separated from it, and formed other churches more agreeable to the word of God; among whom there were ministers, or numbers of the clergy, who had been ordained in the church of Rome, while that was visibly a church of Christ. They, by the consent of the reformed churches, took the oversight of them, and administered ordinances, and ordained others to be elders in the churches; and in this way, an uninterrupted succession of ordinations and ministers in the protestant churches in general has taken place; and may continue down to the end of the world; and certainly will, if this be the will and appointment of Christ; though the church of Rome should be considered now, not the visible church of Christ, and properly excommunicated, agreeable to the laws of Christ; and though there may have been some instances of irregular ordinations, and which have not taken place in this succession, in some protestant churches.
3. There is satisfactory and abundant evidence from history, and otherwise, that it has been the general, if not the universal custom of the churches, to ordain ministers by the laying on of the hands of others, who were before so ordained; and that great care has been taken to keep up a succession in this way. And even those churches who have believed they had the power of ordination of their ministers, within themselves, have generally thought it most regular and proper, to have them ordained by other ordained ministers, when and where this was practicable. And there have been very few instances of ordinations performed without the assistance of one or more, who had been before ordained in this way; and if there have been any such, they have had no influence to interrupt a general and almost universal succession of ordinations by the hands of presbyters, from the apostles down to this time.
When all this is well considered, will it not be evident, that every minister of the gospel, who has been ordained by the hands of presbyters, or bishops, or at least of one, by whatever name they or he may be called, has good warrant to consider himself and act as a visible 237minister of Christ, who has received his commission and authority for this from Christ, by an uninterrupted succession, unless there be good, positive evidence, that this cannot be true, with respect to himself; he being a known exception from what has generally, and almost universally taken place?
It has been objected to the doctrine of an uninterrupted succession, as necessary to continue this order of officers in the church, that this will, in many instances, put it beyond the power of christians to obtain ministers or pastors, so as to be a regular church, and have the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s supper administered to them. A number of christians may be cast away on a desolate island, and be obliged to live there, where they cannot obtain a pastor, unless they can ordain him themselves, and give him authority to perform all the business of this office. And a number of true christians may live in a country, and at a time, where no ministers can be found, who will ordain any one to be their minister, whom they shall choose, or think to be fit for that office. Must those be deprived of ministers and the ordinances of the gospel?
A reply to such an objection has been already suggested. It is really begging the question: For if Christ has made such a constitution, and ordained that those officers in his church shall be continued by an uninterrupted succession, he will not only see that it does take place, and that it shall not be interrupted; but will always put in the power of his people to be supplied with ministers in this way; and there never has been an instance to contradict this, and never will be. The supposition therefore which is made in the objection, is a groundless one, and impossible. Christ will not suffer such an instance to take place, unless it be for his glory, the good of his church in general, and best for the individual christians, who are deprived in this way, of gospel ministers and ordinances. And if there be any such instances, they can be no objection to this institution of Christ.
These ministers and officers in the church are to be devoted to the business of their station and office, and to give themselves to this work, which they have undertaken, 238in preaching the gospel, and administering the ordinances of Christ: in taking care of the church, and presiding in all the public transactions of it, acting with the concurrence and consent of the church. For they have no authority to dictate to the church, and control it in any matter, contrary to their judgment and consent. They are indeed said to have the rule over the churches;365365 Heb. xiii. 7, 17, 24. but this means only to take the lead or preside in the churches, in their public devotions and transactions, as the word in the original signifies. The churches, and every particular member of them, are obliged to submit to them, and obey them, so far as they preach the doctrines of the gospel, and urge the commands of Christ; for so far as they do this, they have all the authority of Christ; and disobedience to them, when they declare the will of Christ, and urge obedience to his laws, is disobedience to Christ, and rejecting him. But of this the members of the church are to judge for themselves, whether what they preach and dictate be agreeable to the revealed will of Christ, and if they judge it to be contrary to revealed truth, they will consider the minister as having no authority, and themselves under no obligation to regard him in those things; and he has no authority to compel them to obedience to his dictates, or to inflict any punishment upon them, or subject them to any worldly inconvenience on this account. They are indeed accountable to Christ for their judgment and conduct in such cases, and to him alone, as he has commanded them to judge and act right, and will condemn every thing that is not so; and is the final judge, to whom all appeals are to be made.366366 This is said with reference to the whole, or the majority of a church: If particular members, or the minor part of a church, reject the doctrines, and refuse to practise the duties which the pastor inculcates, as prescribed by Christ, and the majority of the church approve of them; the firmer are so far accountable to the church, as to be the proper subjects of discipline, and may be rejected by the church, as those who, in their judgment, refuse to obey the truth, and walk disorderly. Thus the elders of the churches are not to be lords over them, but to lead them, and be examples to them, while they preside as overseers, or bishops, feeding them, by preaching the truths of the gospel to them, and declaring the whole counsel of God.”367367 1 Pet. v. 2, 3. Acts xx. 28.239
There are other officers in the church, called deacons, who have the care of the temporal, worldly concerns of the church. The church, when regulated according to the laws of Christ, makes provision for the support of public religion; for a decent and convenient place in which they may attend public worship; the support of the ministers of the gospel; and furnishing the table of the Lord. They are also to provide for the relief and comfort of the poor members of the church. The care and oversight of this provision is committed to the deacons. And they are more especially to distribute to the poor out of the common stock of the church, and take care that no one may suffer for want of the necessaries and comforts of life. We have a particular account of the institution of those officers in the church, in the beginning of the sixth chapter of the Acts. The church pointed out, and chose those whom they thought best qualified for this office, and presented them to the apostles, who ordained them to this office, by laying their hands on them, and praying.
It does not appear from the scripture, that there are more distinct orders of men, and officers, appointed in the church, than these two, viz. elders or bishops, and deacons. Both of these are repeatedly mentioned together, as being the only officers hi the church, as nothing is said of any other. The apostle Paul, when he is directing Timothy, in his regulating the churches in which he had a particular concern, and ordaining officers, mentions only elders or bishops, and deacons, and particularly describes the qualifications of these. And he directs his letter to the church at Philippi, in the following words: “To all the saints which are in Christ Jesus, at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.” Had there been any other order of officers in that church, it may be presumed, he would have mentioned them, when he directs s© particularly to these. This same apostle says, “that when Christ ascended to heaven, “he gave some apostles, and some prophets, and some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers.”368368 Eph. iv. 11. Some have supposed, there are more than two orders of ministers mentioned here; but there does not appear to be 240any evidence of this. By apostles and prophets, are intended the extraordinary gifts and officers in the primitive church, who were not to continue; but ceased when those miraculous gifts, with which they were endowed, ceased; the church having no farther need of them. And if evangelists were not also extraordinary officers, and accordingly ceased with the others mentioned before; they were ordinary ministers of the gospel, ordained to travel, and preach at large, not being confined to a particular church, city or country. Pastors and teachers were the same office, which every elder in particular churches sustained. So that by evangelists, pastors, and teachers, but one sort and degree of officers is meant, viz. ministers of the gospel.
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