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The especial nature of the gospel church-state appointed by Christ.
The principal inquiry, which we have thus far prepared the way unto, and whereon all that ensues unto it doth depend, is concerning the especial nature of that church-state, rule, and order, which the Lord Christ hath instituted under the gospel, of what sort and kind it is; and hereunto some things must be premised:—
1. I design not here to oppose, nor any way to consider, such additions as men may have judged necessary to be added unto that church-state which Christ hath appointed, to render it, in their apprehension, more useful unto its ends than otherwise it would be. Of this sort there are many things in the world, and of a long season have been so. But our present business is to prove the truth, and not to disprove the conceits of other men. And so far as our cause is concerned herein, it shall be done by itself, so as not to interrupt us in the declaration of the truth.
2. Whereas there are great contests about communion with churches, or separation from them, and mutual charges of impositions and schisms thereon, they must be all regulated by this inquiry, — namely, What is that church-state which Christ hath prescribed? Herein alone is conscience concerned as unto all duties of ecclesiastical communion. Neither can a charge of schism be managed against any but on a supposition of sin with respect unto that church-state and order which Christ hath appointed. A dissent from any thing else, however pretended to be useful, yea, advantageous unto church ends, must come under other prudential considerations. All which shall be fully proved, and vindicated from the exceptions of Dr Stillingfleet.
3. There have been and are in the world several sorts of churches of great power and reputation, of several forms and kinds, yet contributing aid to each other in their respective stations; as, — (1.) The papal church, which pretends itself to be catholic or universal, comprehensive of all true believers or disciples of Christ, united in their subjection unto the bishop of Rome. (2.) There were of old, and the shadow of them is still remaining, churches called patriarchal, first three, then four, then five of them, whereinto all other churches 262and professed Christians in the Roman world were distributed, as unto a dependence on the authority, and subjection to the jurisdiction and order, of the bishops of five principal cities of the empire; who were thereon called patriarchs. (3.) Various divisions under them of archiepiscopal or metropolitical churches; and under them of those that are now called diocesan, whose bounds and limits were fixed and altered according to the variety of occasions and occurrences of things in the nations of the world. What hath been the original of all these sorts of churches, how from parochial assemblies they grew up, by the degrees of their descent now mentioned, into the height and centre of papal omnipotency, hath been declared elsewhere sufficiently.
4. Some there are who plead for a national church-state, arising from an association of the officers of particular churches, in several degrees, which they call classical and provincial, until it extend itself unto the limits of a whole nation; that is, one civil body, depending as such on its own supreme ruler and law. I shall neither examine nor oppose this opinion; there hath been enough, if not too much, already disputed about it. But, —
5. The visible church-state which Christ hath instituted under the New Testament consists in an especial society or congregation of professed believers, joined together according unto his mind, with their officers, guides, or rulers, whom he hath appointed, which do or may meet together for the celebration of all the ordinances of divine worship, the professing and authoritatively proposing the doctrine of the gospel, with the exercise of the discipline prescribed by himself, unto their own mutual edification, with the glory of Christ, in the preservation and propagation of his kingdom in the world.
The things observable in this description, and for the farther declaration of it, are, — (1.) The material cause of this church, or the matter whereof it is composed, which are visible believers. (2.) The formal cause of it, which is their voluntary coalescency into such a society or congregation, according to the mind of Christ. (3.) The end of it is, presential local communion, in all the ordinances and institutions of Christ, in obedience unto him and [for] their own edification. (4.) In particular these ends are, — [1.] The preaching of the word, unto the edification of the church itself and the conversion of others; [2.] Administration of the sacraments, or all the mystical appointments of Christ in the church; [3.] The preservation and exercise of evangelical discipline, [4.] Visibly to profess their subjection unto Christ in the world by the observation of his commands. (5.) The bounds and limits of this church are taken from the number of the members; which ought not to be so small as that they cannot 263observe and do all that Christ hath commanded in due order, nor yet so great as not to meet together for the ends of the institution of the church before mentioned. (6.) That this church, in its complete state, consists of pastors, or a pastor and elders, who are its guides and rulers; and the community of the faithful under their rule. (7.) That unto such a church, and every one of them, belong of right all the privileges, promises, and power that Christ doth give and grant unto the church in this world.
These, and sundry other things of the like nature, shall be afterward spoken unto in their order, according unto the method intended in the present discourse.
Two things I shall now proceed unto:—
First, To prove that Christ hath appointed this church-state under the gospel, — namely, of a particular or single congregation. Secondly, That he hath appointed no other church-state that is inconsistent with this, much less that is destructive of it:— First, Christ appointed that church-state which is meet and accommodated unto all the ends which he designed in his institution of a church. But such alone is that church form and order that we have proposed. In Christ’s institution of the church, it was none of his ends that some men might be thereby advanced to rule, honour, riches, or secular grandeur, but the direct contrary, Matt. xx. 25–28. Nor did he do it that his disciples might be ruled and governed by force or the laws of men, or that they should be obstructed in the exercise of any graces, gifts, or privileges that he had purchased for them or would bestow on them. And to speak plainly (let it be despised by them that please), this cannot greatly value that church-state which is not suited to guide, excite, and direct the exercise of all evangelical graces unto the glory of Christ in a due manner; for to propose peculiar and proper objects far them, to give peculiar motives unto them, to limit the seasons and circumstances of their exercise, and regulate the manner of the performance of the duties that arise from them, is one principal end of its institution.
It would be too long to make a particular inquiry into all the ends for which the Lord Christ appointed this church-state; which, indeed, are all the duties of the gospel, either in themselves or in the manner of their performance. We may reduce them unto these three general heads:—
1. The professed subjection of the souls and consciences of believers unto his authority, in their observance of his commandments. He requireth that all who are baptized into his name be taught to do and observe “all things whatsoever he hath commanded,” Matt. xxviii. 18–20. And God is to be glorified, not only in their subjection, but in their “professed subjection unto the gospel of Christ,” 2 Cor. ix. 13. 264Having given an express charge unto his disciples to make public profession of his name, and not to be deterred from it by shame or fear of any thing that may befall them on the account thereof, and that on the penalty of his disowning them before his heavenly Father, Mark viii. 34–38, Matt. x. 33, he hath appointed this church-state as the way and means whereby they may jointly and visibly make profession of this their subjection to him, dependence on him, and freedom in the observation of all his commands.
He will not have this done singly and personally only, but in society and conjunction. Now, this cannot be done, in any church-state imaginable wherein the members of the church cannot meet together for this end; which they can only do in such a church as is congregational.
2. The joint celebration of all gospel ordinances and worship is the great and principal end of the evangelical church-state. How far this is directed unto by the law of nature was before declared. Man was made for society in things natural and civil, but especially in things spiritual, or such as concern the worship of God. Hereon depends the necessity of particular churches, or societies for divine worship. And this is declared to be the end of the churches instituted by Christ, Acts ii. 42; 1 Cor. v. 4, xi. 20; 2 Tim. ii. 1, 2; as also of the institution of officers in the church, for the solemn administration of the ordinances of his worship. And the reasons of this appointment are intimated in the Scripture; as, — (1.) That it might be a way for the joint exercise of the graces and gifts of the Spirit, as was in general before mentioned. The Lord Christ gives both his grace and his gifts in great variety of measures, Eph. iv. 7, but “the manifestation of the Spirit is given unto every man to profit withal,” 1 Cor. xii. 7–10. He gives neither of them unto any merely for themselves. Saving grace is firstly given for the good of him that receives it, but respect is had in it unto the good of others; and the Lord Christ expects such an exercise of it as may be to others’ advantage. And the first end of gifts is the edification of others; and all that do receive them are thereby and so far “stewards of the manifold grace of God,” 1 Pet. iv. 10. Wherefore, for the due exercise of these gifts and graces unto his glory and their proper ends, he hath appointed particular congregations, in whose assemblies alone they can be duly exercised. (2.) Hereby all his disciples are mutually edified; that is, increased in light, knowledge, faith, love, fruitfulness in obedience, and conformity unto himself. This the apostle affirms to be the especial end of all churches, their offices, officers, gifts, and order, Eph. iv. 12–16, and again, chap. ii. 19–22. No church-state that is not immediately suited unto this end is of his institution; and though others may in general pretend unto it, besides that of particular congregations, it were to be wished that they were 265not obstructive of it, or were any way fitted or useful unto it. (3.) That he might hereby express and testify his promised presence with his disciples unto the end of the world, Matt. xxviii. 20, xviii. 20; Rev. i. 13. It is in their church assemblies, and in the performance of his holy worship, that he is present with his disciples according unto his promise. (4.) In these churches, thus exercised in the holy worship of God, he gives us a resemblance and representation of the great assembly above, who worship God continually before his throne; which is too large a subject here to insist upon.
And to manifest that assemblies of the whole church, at once and in one place, for the celebration of divine worship, is of the essence of a church, without which it hath no real being; when God had instituted such a church-form as wherein all the members of it could not ordinarily come together every week for this end, yet he ordained that, for the preservation of their church-state, three times in the year the males (which was the circumcised church) should appear together in one place to celebrate the most solemn ordinances of his worship, Exod. xxiii. 14, xxxiv. 23; Deut. xvi. 16. All those difficulties which arose from the extent of the limits of that church unto the whole nation being removed, these meetings of the whole church for the worship of God become a continual duty; and when they cannot be observed in any church, the state or kind of it is not instituted by Christ.
3. The third end of the institution of the gospel church-state is the exercise and preservation of the discipline appointed by Christ to be observed by his disciples. The ancients do commonly call the whole religion of Christianity by the name of the “discipline of Christ,” — that is, the faith and obedience which he hath prescribed unto them, in contradistinction and opposition unto the rules and prescriptions of all philosophical societies; and it is that without which the glory of Christian religion can in no due manner be preserved. The especial nature of it shall be afterward fully spoken unto. For the use of the present argument I shall only speak unto the ends of it, or what it is that the Lord Christ designeth in the institution of it; and these things may be referred unto four heads:—
(1.) The preservation of the doctrine of the gospel in its purity, and obedience unto the commands of Christ in its integrity. For the first, the Scripture is full of predictions, all confirmed in the event, that after the days of the apostles there should be various attempts to wrest, corrupt, and pervert the doctrine of the gospel, and to bring in pernicious errors and heresies. To prevent, or reprove and remove them, is no small part of the duty of the ministerial office, in the dispensation of the word. But whereas those who taught such perverse things did for the most part arise at first in the churches 266themselves, Acts xx. 30, 2 Pet. ii. 1, 1 John ii. 10, as the preaching of the word was appointed for the rebuke of the doctrines themselves, so this discipline was ordained in the church with respect unto the persons of them by whom they were taught, Rev. ii. 2, 14, 20, 3 John 8, 9; Gal. v. 12. And so also it was with respect unto schisms and divisions that might fall out in the church. The way of suppressing things of this nature by external force, by the sword of magistrates, in prisons, fines, banishments, and death, was not then thought of, nor directed unto by the Lord Jesus Christ, but is highly dishonourable unto him; as though the ways of his own appointment were not sufficient for the preservation of his own truth, but that his disciples must betake themselves unto the secular powers of this world, who for the most part are wicked, profane, and ignorant of the truth, for that end.
And hereunto belongeth the preservation of his commands in the integrity of obedience; for he appointed that hereby care should be taken of the ways, walkings, and conversations of his disciples, that in all things it should be such as became the gospel. Hence, the exercise of this discipline he ordained to consist in exhortations, admonitions, reproofs, of any that should offend in things moral or of his especial institution, with the total rejection of them that were obstinate in their offences; as we shall see afterward.
(2.) The second end of it was to preserve love entire among his disciples. This was that which he gave in especial charge unto all that should believe in his name, taking the command of it to be his own in a peculiar manner, and declaring our observance of it to be the principal pledge and evidence of our being his disciples; for although mutual love be an “old commandment,” belonging both unto the moral law and sundry injunctions under the Old Testament, yet the degrees and measure of it, the ways and duties of its exercise, the motives unto it and reasons for it, were wholly his own, whereby it becomes a “new commandment” also. For the preservation and continuance of this love, which he lays so great weight upon, was this discipline appointed, which it is several ways effectual towards; as, — [1.] In the prevention or removal of offences that might arise among believers, to the impeachment of it, Matt. xviii. 15–17; [2.] In that watch over each other, with mutual exhortations and admonitions, without which this love, let men pretend what they please, will not be preserved. That which keepeth either life or soul in Christian love consists in the exercise of those graces mutually, and the discharge of those duties whereby they may be partakers of the fruits of love in one another. And, for the most part, those who pretend highly unto the preservation of love, by their coming to the same church who dwell in the same parish, have not so much as the carcase, 267nay, not a shadow of it. In the discipline of the Lord Christ it is appointed that this love, so strictly by him enjoined unto us, so expressive of his own wisdom and love, should be preserved, continued, and increased by the due and constant discharge of the duties of mutual exhortation, admonition, prayer, and watchful care over one another, Rom. xv. 14; 1 Thess. v. 11, 12; 2 Thess. iii. 15; Heb. iii. 12, 13, xii. 15, 16.
(3.) A third end of it is, that it might be a due representation of his own love, care, tenderness, patience, meekness, in the acting of his authority in the church. Where this is not observed and designed in the exercise of church-discipline, I will not say it is antichristian, but will say it is highly injurious, and dishonourable unto him; for all church-power is in him and derived from him. Nor is there any thing of that nature which belongs unto it, but it must be acted in his name, and esteemed, both for the manner and matter of it, to be his act and deed. For men, therefore, to pretend unto the exercise of this discipline in a worldly frame of spirit, with pride and passion, by tricks of laws and canons, in courts foreign to the churches themselves which are pretended to be under this discipline, it is a woful and scandalous representation of Christ, his wisdom, care, and love towards his church. But as for his discipline, he hath ordained that it shall be exercised in and with meekness, patience, gentleness, evidence of zeal for the good and compassion of the souls of men, with gravity and authority; so as that therein all the holy affections of his mind towards his church or any in it, in their mistakes, failings, and miscarriages, may be duly represented, as well as his authority acted among them, Isa. xl. 11; 2 Cor. x. 1; Gal. v. 22, 23; 1 Thess. ii. 7; 2 Tim. ii. 24–26; James iii. 17; 1 Cor. xiii.
(4.) It is in part appointed to be an evidence and pledge of the future judgment, wherein the whole church shall be judged before the throne of Christ Jesus; for in the exercise of this discipline Christ is on his own judgment-seat in the church: nor may any man pronounce any sentence but what he believeth that Christ himself would pronounce were he visibly present, and what is according to his mind as declared in his word. Hence Tertullian calls the sentence of excommunication in the church, “Futuri judicii præjudicium,” — a representation of the future judgment.
In all that degeneracy which the Christian professing church hath fallen into, in faith, worship, and manners, there is no instance can exceed the corruption of this divine institution: for that which was the honour of Christ and the gospel, and an effectual means to represent him in the glory of his wisdom and love, and for the exercise of all graces in the church, unto the blessed ends now declared, was turned into a domination, earthly and secular, exercised in a 268profane, litigious, unintelligible process, according unto the arts, ways, and terms of the worst of law courts, by persons for the most part remote from any just pretence of the least interest in church-power, on causes and for ends foreign unto the discipline of the gospel, by a tyranny over the consciences and over the persons of the disciples of Christ, unto the intolerable scandal of the gospel and rule of Christ in his church; as is evident in the state and rule of the church of Rome. As these are the general ends of the institution of a church-state under the gospel, and in order unto them, it is a great divine ordinance for the glory of Christ, with the edification and salvation of them that do believe. Wherefore, that church-state which is suited unto these ends is that which is appointed by Christ; and whatever kind of church or churches is not so, primarily and as such, are not of his appointment. But it is in congregational churches alone that these things can be done and observed; for unto all of them there are required assemblies of the whole church, which, wherever they are, that church is congregational. No such churches as those mentioned before, — papal, patriarchical, metropolitical, diocesan, or in any way national, — are capable of the discharge of these duties or attaining of these ends. If it be said, that what they cannot do in themselves, as that they cannot together in one place profess and express their subjection unto the commands of Christ, they cannot have personal communion in the celebration of gospel ordinances of worship, nor exercise discipline in one body and society, they can yet do the same things otherwise, partly in single congregations appointed by themselves, and partly in such ways, for the administration of discipline, as are suited unto their state and rule, — that is, by ecclesiastical courts, with jurisdiction over all persons or congregations belonging unto them, — it will not help their cause; for, — (1.) Those particular congregations wherein these things are to be observed are churches, or they are not. If they are churches, they are of Christ’s appointment, and we obtain what we aim at; nor is it in the power of any man to deprive them of any thing that belongs unto them as such. If they are not, but inventions and appointments of their own, then that which they say is this, that “what is absolutely necessary unto the due observation of the worship of God, and unto all the ends of churches, being not appointed by Christ, is by them provided for, appointed, and ordained;” which is to exalt themselves in wisdom and care above him, and to place themselves in a nearer relation to the church than he. To grant that many of those things which are the ends for which any church-state under the gospel is appointed, cannot be performed or attained but in and by particular congregations, and yet to deny that those particular congregations are of Christ’s institution, is to speak contradictions, and 269at the same time to affirm that they are churches and are not churches. (2.) A church is such a body or society as hath spiritual power, privileges, and promises annexed unto it and accompanying of it. That which hath not so, as such, is no church. The particular congregations mentioned have this power, with privileges and promises belonging to them, or they have not. If they have not, they are no churches, at least no complete churches; and there are no churches in the earth wherein those things can be done for which the being of churches was ordained, — as, namely, the joint celebration of divine worship by all the members of them. If they have such power, I desire to know from whence or whom they have it; if from Christ, then are they of his institution, and who can divest them of that power, or any part of it? That they have it from men, I suppose will not be pretended. (3.) As unto that way of the exercise of discipline suited unto any other church-state but that which is congregational, we shall consider it afterward. (4.) What is done in particular congregations is not the act of any greater church, as a diocesan, or the like; for whatever acts any thing, acts according unto what it is. But this of joint worship and discipline in assemblies is not the act of such a church according unto what it is; for so it is impossible for it to do any thing of that nature. But thus it is fallen out. Some men, under the power of a tradition that particular congregations were originally of a divine institution, and finding the absolute necessity of them unto the joint celebration of divine worship, yet finding what an inconsistency with their interest, and some other opinions which they have imbibed, should they still be acknowledged to be of the institution of Christ, seeing thereon the whole ordinary power given by Christ unto his church must reside in them, they would now have them to be only conveniences for some ends of worship of their own finding out. Something they would have like Christ’s institution, but his it shall not be; which is an image.
Secondly, The very notation of the word doth determine the sense of it unto a particular congregation. Other things may in churches, as we shall see afterward, both in the rule and administration of the duties of holy worship, be ordered and disposed in great variety; but whilst a church is such as that ordinarily the whole body, in its rulers and those that are ruled, do assemble together in one place for the administration of gospel ordinances and the exercise of discipline, it is still one single congregation, and can be neither diocesan, provincial, nor national: so that although the essence of the church doth not consist in actual assemblies, yet are they absolutely necessary unto its constitution in exercise.
Hence is the name of a church. קָהַל, the verb in the Old Testament, is to congregate, to assemble, to call and meet together, and 270nothing else. The LXX. render it mostly by ἐκκλησιάζω, to congregate in a church-assembly; and sometimes by other words of the same importance, as συνίστημι, συνάγω, ἐπισυνάγω. So they do the noun קָהָל by συναγωγή, ἐκκλησία, seldom by any other word; but where they do so it is always of the same signification. Wherefore, this word signifies nothing but a congregation which assembles for the ends and uses of it, and acts its duties and powers; so doth ἐκκλησία also in the New Testament. It may be sometimes applied unto that whose essence is not denoted thereby, as the church catholic invisible, which is only a mystical society or congregation. But where-ever it is used to denote an outward visible society, it doth connote their assembling together in one. It is frequently used for an actual assembly, Acts xix. 32, 39, 40, which was the signification of it in all Greek writers, 1 Cor. xiv. 4, 5; and sometimes it is expressly affirmed that it “met together in the same place,” chap. xiv. 23. Wherefore, no society that doth not congregate, the whole body whereof doth not meet together, to act its powers and duties, is a church, or may be so called, whatever sort of body or corporation it may be.
In this sense is the word used when the first intimation is given of an evangelical church-state with order and discipline: Matt. xviii. 17, “if he shall neglect to hear them, tell the church,” etc. There have been so many contests about the sense of these words and the interpretation of them, so many various and opposite opinions about them, and those debated in such long and operose discourses, that some would take an argument from thence that nothing can be directly proved from them, nor any certain account of the state and duty of the church be thence collected. But nothing can be insinuated more false and absurd, nor which more directly tendeth to the overthrow of the whole authority of the Scripture; for if when men are seduced, by their interests or otherwise, to multiply false expositions of any place of Scripture, and to contend earnestly about them, thereon, as unto us, they lose their instructive power and certain determination of the truth, we should quickly have no bottom or foundation for our faith in the most important articles of religion, nor could have so at this day. But all the various pretences of men, — some whereof would have the pope, others a general council, some the civil magistrate, some the Jewish synagogue, some a company of arbitrators, — are nothing but so many instances of what interest, prejudice, corrupt lusts, ambitious designs, with a dislike of the truth, will bring forth. To me it seems strange that any impartial man, reading the context, can take “the church” in this place in any other sense but for such a society as whereunto an offending and offended brother or disciple of Christ might and ought to belong, to 271the body whereof they might address themselves for relief and remedy, or the removal of offences, by virtue of the authority and appointment of Jesus Christ.
It were an endless task, and unsuited unto our present design, to examine the various pretensions unto the church in this place: enough, also, if not too much, hath been written already about them. I shall, therefore, observe only some few things from the context, which will sufficiently evidence what sort of church it is that is here intended:—
1. The rule and direction given by our Saviour in this place unto his disciples doth not concern civil injuries as such, but such sins as have scandal and offence in them, either causing other men to sin, or giving them grief and offence for sin; whereby the exercise of love in mutual communion may be impeded. Private injuries may be respected herein, but not as injuries, but so far as they are scandalous, and matter of offence unto them unto whom they are known. And this appears, —
(1.) From the proper signification of the phrase here used: Ἐὰν ἁμαρτήσῃ εἰς σέ· — “If thy brother sin against thee.” Doing of an injury is expressed by ἀδικέω, and to be injured by ἀποστερέομαι, 1 Cor. vi. 7, 8, — that is, to be wronged, to be dealt unjustly withal, and to be defrauded or deprived of our right; but ἁμαρτάνω εἰς is not used but only for so to sin as to give scandal unto them against whom that sin is said to be, 1 Cor. viii. 11, 12. To be guilty of “sin against Christ,” in the light of their consciences, is to “sin against them.”
(2.) It is evident in the context. Our Saviour is treating directly about all sorts of scandals and offences, or sins, as occasions of falling, stumbling, and sinning, and so of perishing unto others, giving rules and directions about them from the eighth verse unto these words wherein direction is given about their cure and removal. And two things he ascribes unto these scandals, — first, That weak Christians are despised in them, verse 10; secondly, That they are in danger to be destroyed or lost for ever by them, verse 14; which gives us a true account of the nature of scandalous offences. Wherefore ἁμαρτάνω, to sin, is used here in the same sense with σκανδαλίζω before, to give offence by a scandalous miscarriage.
(3.) Where the same rule is again recorded, the words used enforce this application of them, Luke xvii. 1–3. The Lord Christ foretells his disciples that scandals and offences would arise, with the nature and danger of them, verse 1. And because that they obtain their pernicious effects mostly on them that are weak, he gives caution against them with especial respect to such among his disciples: “Better any one were cast into the sea,” ἢ ἵνα σκαδαλίσῃ ἕνα τῶν μικρῶν τούτων, — “than that he should give scandal or offence unto one 272of these little ones,” verse 2. And what he expresseth by σκανδαλίσῃ, verse 2, he expresseth by ἁμάρτῃ εἰς σέ, verse 3, “sin against thee;” and this is plain from the direction which he gives hereon, ἐπιτίμησον αὐτῷ, “rebuke him.” The word is never used with respect unto private injuries, but as they are sins or faults; so is it joined with ἔλεγξον, 2 Tim. iv. 2. And ἐπιτιμία is the only word used for the rebuke given, or to be given, unto a scandalous offender, 2 Cor. ii. 6.
(4.) Another rule is given in case of private injuries that are only such; and that is, that we immediately forgive them.
(5.) It doth not seem a direction suited unto that intense love which the Lord Christ requireth in all his disciples one towards another, nor the nature of that love in its exercise, as it is described, 1 Cor. xiii., that for a private injury done unto any man, without respect unto sin against God therein, which is the scandal, he should follow his brother so far as to have him cast out of the communion of all Churches and believers; which yet, in case of sin unrepented of, is a necessary duty.
2. The rule here prescribed, and the direction given, were so prescribed and given for the use of all the disciples of Christ in all ages, and are not to be confined unto any present case or the present season. For, — (1.) There was no such case at present, no mutual offence among any of his disciples, that should require this determination of it; only respect is had unto what might afterward fall out in the church. (2.) There was no need of any such direction at that time, because Christ himself was then constantly present with them, in whom all church-power did reside both eminently and formally Accordingly, when any of them did offend unto scandal, he did himself rebuke them, Matt. xvi. 22, 23; and when any thing of mutual offence fell out among them, he instructed them and directed them into the way of love, doing what any church could do, and much more also, chap. xx. 24–28. (3.) This was a case which our Saviour foreknew and foretold that it would fall out in the church in future generations, even unto the end of the world. It doth so every day, and will do so whilst men are in an imperfect state here below. Nor is there any thing wherein the church, as unto its order, purity, and edification, is more concerned; nor can any of them be preserved without a certain rule for the cure and healing of offences, nor are so in any church where such a rule is not, or is neglected. It is therefore fond to suppose that our Saviour should prescribe this rule for that i season wherein there was no need of it, and not for those times wherein the church could not subsist in order without it.
3. The church here directed unto is a Christian church; for, — (1.) Whereas it hath been proved it concerned the times to come afterward, there was in those times nothing that could pretend unto the 273name of the church but a Christian church only. The Jewish synagogues had an utter end put unto them, so as that an address unto any of them in this case was not only useless but unlawful. And as unto magistrates or arbitrators, to have them called the church, and that in such a sense as that after the interposition of their authority or advice a man should be freed from the discharge of all Christian duties, such as are mutually required among the disciples of Christ, towards his brother, is a fond imagination: for, — (2.) It is such a church as can exercise authority in the name of Christ over his disciples, and such as in conscience they should be bound to submit themselves unto; for the reason given of the contempt of the voice, judgment, and sentence of the church in case of offence, is their power of spiritual binding and loosing, which is committed by Christ thereunto, and so he adds immediately, Matt. xviii. 18, “Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven;” [which] is the privilege of a Christian church only.
4. It is a visible particular congregation alone that is intended; for, — (1.) As unto “the church” in other acceptations of that name, either for the catholic invisible church, or for the whole body of professed believers throughout the world, it is utterly impossible that this duty should be observed towards it, as is manifest unto all. (2.) We have proved that the first and most proper signification of the word is of a single congregation, assembling together for its duties and enjoyments. Wherever, therefore, the church in general is mentioned, without the addition of any thing or circumstance that may lead unto another signification, it must be interpreted of such a particular church or congregation. (3.) The persons intended, offending and offended, must belong unto the same society unto whom the address is to be made, or else the one party may justly decline the judicatory applied unto, and so frustrate the process; and it must be such a church as unto whom they are known in their circumstances, without which it is impossible that a right judgment in sundry cases can be made in point of offence. (4.) It is a church of an easy address: “Go, tell the church;” which supposeth that free and immediate access which all the members of a church have unto that whole church whereof they are members. Wherefore, — (5.) It is said, Εἶπε τῆ ἐκκλησίᾳ, “Tell the church;” not a church, but the church, — namely, whereunto thou and thy brother do belong. (6.) One end of this direction is, that the offending and the offended parties may continue together in the communion of the same church, in love without dissimulation; which thing belongs unto a particular congregation. (7.) The meaning is not, “Tell the diocesan bishop,” for whatever church he may have under his rule, yet is not he himself 274a church. Nor is it (8.) the chancellor’s court that our Saviour intended. Be it what it will, it is a disparagement unto all churches to have that name applied thereunto. Nor, lastly, is it a presbytery, or association of the elders of many particular congregations, that is intended; for the power proclaimed in such associated presbyteries is with respect unto what is already in or before particular congregations, which they have not either wisdom or authority, as is supposed, finally to order and determine. But this supposeth that the address in the first place be made unto a particular congregation; which, therefore, is firstly and properly here intended.
All things are plain, familiar, and exposed to the common understandings of all believers whose minds are any way exercised about these things, as, indeed, are all things that belong unto the discipline of Christ. Arguments pretendedly deep and learned, really obscure and perplexed, with logical notions and distinctions applied unto things thus plain and evident in themselves, do serve only to involve and darken the truth. It is plain in the place, — (1.) That there was a church-state for Christians then designed by Christ, which afterward he would institute and settle; (2.) That all true disciples were to join and unite themselves in some such church as might be helpful unto their love, order, peace, and edification; (3.) That among the members of these churches offences would or might arise, which in themselves tend unto pernicious events; (4.) That if these offences could not be cured and taken away, so as that love without dissimulation might be continued among all the members of the churches, an account of them at last was to be given unto that church or society whereunto the parties concerned do belong as members of it; (5.) That this church should hear, determine, and give judgment, with advice, in the cases so brought unto it, for the taking away and removal of all offences; (6.) That this determination of the church is to be rested in, on the penalty of a deprivation of all the privileges of the church; (7.) That these things are the institution and appointment of Christ himself, whose authority in them all is to be submitted unto, and which alone can cast one that is a professed Christian into the condition of a heathen or a publican.
These things, in the notion and practice of them, are plain, easy, and exposed to the understanding of the meanest of the disciples of Christ, as it is meet that all things should be wherein their daily practice is concerned; but it is not easily to be expressed into what horrible perplexities and confusions they have been wrested in the church of Rome, nor how those who depart from the plain, obvious sense of the words, and love not the practice they direct unto, do lead themselves and others into ways and paths that have neither use nor end. From the corrupt abuse of the holy institution of our 275Lord Jesus Christ, here intended, so many powers, faculties, courts, jurisdictions, legal processes, with litigious, vexatious, oppressive courses of actions and trials, — whose very names are uncouth, horrid, foreign unto religion, and unintelligible without cunning in an artificial, barbarous science of the canon law, — have proceeded, as are enough to fill a sober, rational man with astonishment how it could ever enter into the minds of men to suppose that they can possibly have any relation unto this divine institution. Those who are not utterly blinded with interest and prejudice, wholly ignorant of the gospel and the mind of Christ therein, as also strangers from the practice of the duties which it requires, will hardly believe that in this context our Lord Jesus Christ designed to set up and erect an earthly domination in and over his churches, to be administered by the rules of the canon law and the Rota44 The Rota is an important ecclesiastical court at Rome, before which all suits in the territory of the church may be carried by appeal, and which takes cognizance of all beneficiary and patrimonial interests. Twelve prelates are the judges; of whom one must be a German, another a Frenchman, two Spaniards, and the rest Italians. — Ed. at Rome. They must be spiritually mad and ridiculous who can give the least entertainment unto such an imagination.
Nor can the discipline of any diocesan churches, administered in and by courts and officers foreign to the Scripture, both name and thing, be brought within the view of this rule, nor can all the art of the world make any application of it thereunto; for what some plead concerning magistrates or arbitrators, they are things which men would never betake themselves unto, but only to evade the force of that truth which they love not. All this is fallen out by men’s departing from the simplicity of the gospel, and a contempt of that sense of the words of the Lord Jesus which is plain and obvious unto all who desire not only to hear his words but also to observe his commands.
Thirdly, Our third argument is taken from the nature of the churches instituted by the apostles and their order, as it is expressed in the Scripture; for they were all of them congregational, and of no other sort. This the ensuing considerations will make evident:—
1. There were many churches planted by the apostles in very small provinces. Not to insist on the churches of Galatia, Gal. i. 2, concerning which it is nowhere intimated that they had any one head or mother church, metropolitical or diocesan; nor of those of Macedonia, distinct from that of Philippi, whereof we have spoken before; upon the first coming of Paul after his conversion unto Jerusalem, which was three years, chap. i. 18, in the fourth year after the ascension of Christ, there were churches planted in all Judea, and Galilee, and Samaria, Acts ix. 31. Neither of the two latter provinces was equal unto one ordinary diocese; yet were there churches in both of them, and that 276in so short a time after the first preaching of the gospel as that it is impossible they should be conceived to be any other but single congregations. What is excepted or opposed hereunto by the Rev. Dr Stillingfleet shall be examined and disproved afterward by itself, that the progress of our discourse be not here interrupted.
2. These churches were such as that the apostles appointed in them ordinary elders and deacons, that might administer all ordinances unto the whole church, and take care of all the poor, Acts xiv. 23, xx. 17, 28. Now, the care, inspection, and labour of ordinary officers can extend itself no farther than unto a particular congregation. No man can administer all ordinances unto a diocesan church. And this “ordaining elders in every church” is the same with “ordaining them in every city,” Tit. i. 5, — that is, in every town wherein there was a number converted unto the faith; as is evident from Acts xiv. 23. And it was in towns and cities ordinarily that the gospel was first preached and first received. Such believers being congregated and united in the profession of the same faith and subjection unto the authority of Christ, did constitute such a church-state as it was the will of Christ they should have bishops or elders and deacons ordained amongst them; and were, therefore, as unto their state, such churches as he owned.
3. It is said of most of these churches expressly that they respectively met together in one place, or had their assemblies of the whole church for the discharge of the duties required of them; which is peculiar unto congregational churches only: so did the church at Jerusalem on all occasions, Acts xv. 12, 22, xxi. 22; see chap. v. 11, vi. 2. It is of no force which is objected from the multitude of them that are said to believe, and so, consequently, were of that church, so as that they could not assemble together; for whereas the Scripture says expressly that the “multitude” of the church did “come together,” it is scarce fair for us to say they were such a multitude as that they could not come together. And it is evident that the great numbers of believers that are said to be at Jerusalem were there only occasionally, and were not fixed in that church; for many years after, a small village beyond Jordan could receive all that were so fixed in it. The church at Antioch gathered together in one assembly, chap. xiv. 27, to hear Paul and Silas. This church, thus called together, is called “The multitude,” chap. xv. 30; that is, the whole brotherhood, at least, of that church. The whole church of Corinth did assemble together in one place, both for solemn worship and the exercise of discipline, 1 Cor. v. 4, 5, xi. 17, 18, 20, xiv. 23–26.
It is no way necessary to plead any thing in the illustration or for the confirmation of these testimonies. They all of them speak positively in a matter of fact, which will admit of no debate, unless we will put in exceptions unto the veracity of their authors. And they 277are of themselves sufficient to establish our assertion; for whatever may be the state of any church as unto its officers or rule, into what order soever it be disposed ordinarily or occasionally for its edification, so long as it is its duty to assemble in and with all its members in one place, either for the exercise of its power, the performance of its duty, or enjoyment of its privileges, it is a single congregation, and no more.
4. The duties prescribed unto all church-members in the writings of the apostles, to be diligently attended unto by them, are such as, either in their nature or the manner of their performance, cannot be attended unto and duly accomplished but in a particular congregation only. This I shall immediately speak distinctly unto, and therefore only mention it in this place.
These things being so plainly, positively, and frequently asserted in the Scripture, it cannot be questionable unto any impartial mind but that particular churches or congregations are of divine institution, and consequently that unto them the whole power and privilege of the church doth belong; for if they do not so, whatever they are, churches they are not. If, therefore, any other church-state be supposed, we may well require that its name, nature, use, power, and bounds be some or all of them declared in the Scripture. Reasonings drawn from the superiority of the apostles above the evangelists, of bishops above presbyters, or from church-rule in the hands of the officers of the church only, from the power of the Christian magistrate in things ecclesiastical, from the meetness of union among all churches, are of no use in this case; for they are all consistent with the sole institution of particular congregations, nor do in the least intimate that there is or needs to be any other church-state of divine appointment.
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