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Of the original of churches.
When any thing which is pleaded to belong unto religion or the worship of God is proposed unto us, our first consideration of it ought to be in that inquiry which our Lord Jesus Christ made of the Pharisees concerning the baptism of John, “Whence is it? from heaven, or of men?” He distributes all things which come under that plea or pretence into two heads, as unto their original and efficient cause, — namely, “heaven” and “men.” And these are not only different and distinct, but so contradictory one unto another, that, as unto any thing wherein religion or the worship of God is concerned, they cannot concur as partial causes of the same effect. What is of men is not from heaven; and what is from heaven is not of men. And hence is his determination concerning both sorts of these things: “Every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up,” Matt. xv. 13.
Designing, therefore, to treat of churches, their original, nature, use, and end, my first inquiry must be whether they are from heaven or of men, — that is, whether they are of a divine original, having a divine institution, or whether they are an ordinance or creation of men; for their pedigree must be derived from one of these singly. They never concurred in the constitution of any part of divine worship, or any thing that belongs thereunto.
This would seem a case and inquiry of an exceeding easy determination; for the Scripture everywhere makes mention of the church or churches as the ordinances and institutions of God. But such things have fallen out in the world in latter ages as may make men justly question whether we understand the mind of God aright or no 224in what is spoken of them; at least, if they should allow that the churches so mentioned in the Scripture were of divine appointment, yet it might be highly questionable whether those which have since been in the world be not a mere product of the invention and power of men.
1. For many ages, such things alone were proposed unto the world, and imposed on it for the only church, as were from hell rather than from heaven; at least from men, and thou none of the best: for all men in these western parts of the world were obliged to believe and profess, on the penalties of eternal and temporal destruction, that the pope of Rome and those depending on him were the only church in the world. If this should be granted, — as it was almost universally in some ages, and in this is earnestly contended for, — there would be a thousand evidences to prove that the institution of churches is not from heaven, but from men. Whether the inventions of men in the mystery of iniquity be to be received again or no, men of secular wisdom and interest may do well to consider; but he must be blind and mad, and accursed in his mind and understanding, who can think of receiving it as from heaven, as a divine institution. But I have treated of this subject in other discourses.
2. The name, pretence, and presumed power of the church or churches, have been made and used as the greatest engine for the promoting and satisfying the avarice, sensuality, ambition, and cruelty of men that ever was in the world. Never any thing was found out by men, or Satan himself, so fitted, suited, and framed to fill and satisfy the lusts of multitudes of men, as this of the church hath been, and yet continues to be: for it is so ordered, is of that make, constitution, and use, that corrupt men need desire no more for the attainment of wealth, honour, grandeur, pleasure, all the ends of their lusts, spiritual or carnal, but a share in the government and power of the church; nor hath an interest therein been generally used unto any other ends. All the pride and ambition, all the flagitious lives, in luxury, sensuality, uncleanness, incests, etc., of popes, cardinals, prelates, and their companions, with their hatred unto and oppression of good men, arose from the advantage of their being reputed “the church.” To this very day, “the church” here and there, as it is esteemed, is the greatest means of keeping Christian religion in its power and purity out of the world, and a temptation to multitudes of men to prefer the church before religion, and to be obstinate in their oppositions unto it. These things being plain and evident unto wise men who had no share in the conspiracy nor the benefit of it, how could they think that this church-state was from heaven, and not of men?
3. By “the church” (so esteemed), and in pursuit of its interests, by 225its authority and power, innumerable multitudes of Christians have been slain or murdered, and the earth soaked with their blood. Two emperors of Germany alone fought above eighty battles for and against the pretended power and authority of the church. It hath laid whole countries desolate with fire and sword, turning cities into ashes and villages into a wilderness, by the destruction of their inhabitants. It was the Church which killed, murdered, and burnt innumerable holy persons, for no other reason in the world but because they would not submit their souls, consciences, and practices unto her commands, and be subject unto her in all things. Nor was there any other church conspicuously visible in all these parts of the world; nor was it esteemed lawful once to think that this was not the true church, or that there was or could be any other. For men to believe that this church-state was from heaven, is for them to believe that cruelty, bloodshed, murder, the destruction of mankind, especially of the best, the wisest, and the most holy among them, is the only way to heaven.
4. The secular, worldly interest of multitudes lying in this presumptive church and the state of it, they preferred and exalted it above all that is called God, and made the greatest idol of it that ever was in the world; for it was the faith and profession of it, that its authority over the souls and consciences of men is above the authority of the Scriptures, so that they have no authority towards us unless it be given unto them by this church, and that we neither can nor need believe them to be the word of God unless they inform us and command us so to do. This usurpation of divine honour, in putting itself and its authority above that of the Scripture or word of God, discovers full well whence it was. In like manner, those who assumed it unto themselves to be the church, without any other right, title, or pretence unto it, have exalted one amongst them, and with him themselves in their several capacities, above all emperors, kings, and princes, nations and people, trampling on them at their pleasure. Is this church-state from heaven? Is it of divine institution? Is it the heart and centre of Christian religion? Is it that which all men must be subject to on pain of eternal damnation? Who that knows any thing of Christ or the gospel can entertain such a thought without detestation and abhorrency?
5. This pretence of the church is at this day one of the greatest causes of the atheism that the world is filled withal. Men find themselves, they know not how, to belong unto this or that church; they suppose that all the religion that is required of them is no more but what this church suggests unto them; and abhorring, through innumerable prejudices, to inquire whether there be any other ministerial church-state or no, understanding at length the church to be a political combination, for the wealth, power, and dignity of some 226persons, they cast away all regard of religion, and become professed atheists.
6. Unto this very day, the woful divisions, distractions, and endless controversies that are among Christians, with the dangerous consequences and effects of them, do all spring and arise from the churches that are in the world. Some are for the church of Rome, some for the church of England, some for the Greek church, and so of the rest; which, upon an acknowledgment of such a state of them as is usually allowed, cannot but produce wars and tumults among nations, with the oppression of particular persons in all sorts of calamities. In one place men are killed for not owning of one church, and in another for approving of it. Amongst ourselves prisons are filled, and men’s goods spoiled, divisions multiplied, and the whole nation endangered, in a severe attempt to cause all Christians to acknowledge that church-state which is set up among us. In brief, these Churches, in the great instance of that of Rome, have been, and are, the scandal of Christian religion, and the greatest cause of most of the evils and villanies which the world hath been replenished withal. And is it any wonder if men question whether they are from heaven or of men.
For my part, I look upon it as one of the greatest mercies that God hath bestowed on any professed Christians in these latter ages, that he hath, by the light and knowledge of his word, disentangled the souls and consciences of any that do believe from all respect and trust unto such churches, discovering the vanity of their pretences and wickedness of their practices; whereby they openly proclaim themselves to be of men, and not from heaven. Not that he hath led them off from a church-state thereby; but by the same word revealed that to them which is pure, simple, humble, holy, and so far from giving occasion unto any of the evils mentioned as that the admittance of it will put an immediate end unto them all. Such shall we find the true and gospel church-state to be in the following description of it. He that comes out of the confusion and disorder of these human (and, as unto some of them, hellish) churches, who is delivered from this “mystery of iniquity,” in darkness and confusion, policies and secular contrivances, coming thereon to obtain a view of the true native beauty, glory, and use of evangelical churches, will be thankful for the greatness of his deliverance.
Whereas, therefore, for many ages, the church of Rome, with those claiming under it and depending on it, was esteemed to be the only true church in the world, and nothing was esteemed so highly criminal, — not murder, treason, nor incest, — as to think of or to assert any other church-state, it was impossible that any wise man not utterly infatuated could apprehend a church, any church whatever, 227to be of divine institution or appointment; for all the evils mentioned, and others innumerable, were not only occasioned by it, but they were effects of it, and inseparable from its state and being. And if any other churches also, which, although the people whereof they consist are of another faith than those of the Roman church, are like unto it in their make and constitution, exercising the right, power, and authority which they claim unto themselves by such ways and means as are plainly of this world and of their own invention, they do leave it highly questionable from whence they are, as such; for it may be made to appear that such Churches, so far as they are such, are obstructive of the sole end of all churches, — which is the edification of them that do believe, — however any that are of them or belong unto them may promote that end by their personal endeavours.
But, notwithstanding all these things, it is most certain that churches are of a divine original, — that they are the ordinance and institution of Christ. I am not yet arrived, in the order of this discourse, to a convenient season of declaring what is the especial nature, use, and end of such churches as are so the institution of God, and so to give a definition of them, which shall be done afterward; but treat only as unto the general notion of a church, and what is signified thereby. These are of God. And in those churches before described, under a corrupt, degenerate estate, three things may be considered:— 1. What is of man, without the least pretence unto the appointment or command of God. Such is the very form, fabric, and constitution of the church of Rome, and those that depend thereon or are conformed thereunto. That which it is, that whereby it is what it is, in its kind, government, rule, and end, is all of man, without the least countenance given unto it from any thing of God’s institution. This is that which, through a long effectual working of men and Satan, in a mystery of iniquity, it arrived unto. Herewith the saints of God ought to have no compliance, but bear witness against it with their lives, if called thereunto. This in due time the Lord Christ will utterly destroy. 2. Such things as pretend unto a countenance to be given them by divine institution, but horribly corrupted. Such are the name of a church and its power, a worship pretended to be religious and divine, an order as to officers and rulers different from the people, with sundry things of the like nature. These things are good in themselves, but as engrossed into a false church-state and worship, corrupt in themselves, they are of men, and to be abhorred of all that seek after the true church of Christ. 3. There is that which is the essence of a true church, — namely, that it be a society of men united for the celebration of divine worship. This, so far as it may be found among them, is to be approved.
228But churches, as was said, are of a divine original, and have the warrant of divine authority. The whole Scripture is an account of God’s institution of churches, and of his dealing with them.
God laid the foundation of church societies and the necessity of them in the law of nature, by the creation and constitution of it. I speak of churches in general, as they are societies of the human race, one way or other joined and united together for the worship of God. Now, the sole end of the creation of the nature of man was the glory of God, in that worship and obedience which it was fitted and enabled to perform. For that end, and no other, was our nature created, in all its capacities, abilities, and perfections. Neither was man so made merely that every individual should singly and by himself perform this worship, though that also every individual person is obliged unto. Every man alone, and by himself, will not only find himself indigent and wanting supplies of sundry kinds, but also that he is utterly disabled to act sundry faculties and powers of his soul, which by nature he is endued withal. Hence the Lord God said, “It is not good that man should be alone,” Gen. ii. 18.
These things, therefore, are evident in themselves:— 1. That God created our nature, or made man, for his own worship and service, and fitted the powers and faculties of his soul thereunto. 2. That this nature is so fitted for society, so framed for it as its next end, that without it, it cannot act itself according unto what it is empowered unto; and this is the foundation of all order and government in the world among mankind. 3. That by the light of nature this acting in society is principally designed unto the worship of God. The power, I say, and necessity of acting in society is given unto our nature for this end principally, that we may thus glorify God in and by the worship which he requires of us. 4. That without the worship of God in societies there would be an absolute failure of one principal end of the creation of man; nor would any glory arise unto God from the constitution of his nature, so fitted for society as that it cannot act its own powers without it. 5. All societies are to be regulated, in the light of nature, by such circumstances as whereby they are suited onto their end, for which they may be either too large or too much restrained.
Hence have we the original of churches in the light of nature. Men associating themselves together, or uniting in such societies for the worship of God, which he requires of them, as may enable them unto an orderly performance of it, are a church. And hereunto it is required, — 1. That the persons so uniting are sensible of their duty, and have not lost the knowledge of the end of their creation and being. 2. That they are acquainted with that divine religious worship which God requires of them. The former light and persuasion 229being lost issues in atheism; and by the loss of this, instead of churches, the generality of mankind have coalesced into idolatrous combinations. 3. That they do retain such innate principles of the light of nature as will guide them in the discharge of their duties in these societies. As, — (1.) That the societies themselves be such as are meet for their end, fit to exercise and express the worship of God in them, not such as whose constitution makes them unfit for any such end; and this gives the natural bounds of churches in all ages, which it is in vain for any man to endeavour an alteration of, as we shall see afterward. (2.) That all things be done decently and in order, in and by these societies. This is a prime dictate of the law of nature, arising from the knowledge of God and ourselves, which hath been wrested into I know not what religious ceremonies of men’s invention. (3.) That they be ready to receive all divine revelations with faith and obedience, which shall either appoint the ways of God’s worship and prescribe the duties of it, or guide and direct them in its performance, and to regulate their obedience therein. This also is a clear, unquestionable dictate of the light and law of nature, nor can be denied but on the principles of downright atheism.
Farther we need not seek for the divine original of churches, or societies of men fearing God, for the discharge of his public worship, unto his glory and their own eternal benefit, according unto the light and knowledge of his mind and will which he is pleased to communicate unto them.
What concerns the framing and fashioning of churches by arbitrary and artificial combinations, in provinces, nations, and the like, we shall afterward inquire into. This is the assured foundation and general warranty of particular societies and churches, whilst men are continued on the earth; the especial regulation of them by divine revelation will in the next place be considered. And he who is not united with others in some such society, lives in open contradiction unto the law of nature and its light, in the principal instances of it.
1. Whereas the directions given by the light of nature in and unto things concerning the outward worship of God are general only, so as that by them alone it would be very difficult to erect a church-state in good and holy order, God did always from the beginning, by especial revelations and institution, ordain such things as might perfect the conduct of that light unto such a complete order as was accepted with himself. So, first, he appointed a church-state for man in innocency, and completed its order by the sacramental addition of the two trees, — the one of life, the other of the knowledge of good and evil.
2. That before the coming of Christ, — who was to perfect and complete 230all divine revelations, and state all things belonging unto the house and worship of God, so as never to admit of the least change or alteration, — this church-state, as unto outward order, rites of worship, ways and manner of the administration of things sacred, with its bounds and limits, was changeable, and variously changed. The most eminent change it received was in the giving of the law, which fixed its state unalterably unto the coming of Christ, Mal. iv. 4–6.
3. That it was God himself alone who made all these alterations and changes; nor would he, nor did he, ever allow that the wills, wisdom, or authority of men should prescribe rules or measures unto his worship in any thing, Heb. iii. 1–6.
4. That the foundation of every church-state that is accepted with God is in an express covenant with him, that they receive and enter into who are to be admitted into that state. A church not founded in a covenant with God is not from heaven, but of men. Hereof we shall treat more at large, as I suppose, afterward. See it exemplified, Exod. xxiv.
5. There is no good in, there is no benefit to be obtained by, any church-state whatever, unless we enter into it and observe it by an act of obedience, with immediate respect unto the authority of Christ, by whom it is appointed and the observation of it prescribed unto us, Matt. xxviii. 18–20. Hence, —
6. Unless men, by their voluntary choice and consent, out of a sense of their duty unto the authority of Christ in his institutions, do enter into a church-state, they cannot, by any other ways or means, be so framed into it as to find acceptance with God therein, 2 Cor. viii. 5. And the interpositions that are made by custom, tradition, the institutions and ordinances of men, between the consciences of them who belong or would belong unto such a state, and the immediate authority of God, are highly obstructive of this divine order and all the benefits of it;11 See “Discourse concerning Evangelical Love,” p. 88 of this volume. for hence it is come to pass that most men know neither how nor whereby they come to be members of this or that church, but only on this ground, that they were born where it did prevail and was accepted.
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