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Congregational churches alone suited unto the ends of Christ in the institution of his church.
Having given an account of that state and order of the gospel churches which are of divine institution, it is necessary that we declare also their suitableness and sufficiency unto all the ends for which the Lord Christ appointed such churches; for if there be any true proper end of that nature which cannot be attained in or by any church-state in this or that form, it must be granted that no such form is of divine appointment. Yea, it is necessary not only that such a state as pretends unto a divine original be not only not contradictory unto or inconsistent with such an end, but that it is effectually conducing thereunto, and in its place necessary unto that purpose. This, therefore, is that which we shall now inquire into, — namely, whether this state and form of gospel churches in single congregations be suited unto all those ends for which any such churches were appointed; which they must be on the account of the wisdom of Jesus Christ, the author and founder of them, or be utterly discarded from their pretence. Nor is there any more forcible argument against any pretended church-state, rule, or order, than that it is obstructive unto the souls of men in attaining the proper ends of their whole institution. What these ends are was in general before declared; I shall not here repeat them, or go over them again, but only single out the consideration of those which are usually pleaded as not attainable by this way of churches in single congregations only, or that at least they are not suited unto their attainment.
1. The first of these is mutual love among all Christians, all the disciples of Christ. By the disciples of Christ I intend them, and them only, who profess faith in his person and doctrine, and to hear him, or to be guided by him alone, in all things that appertain unto the worship of God, and their living unto him. If there are any called Christians who in these things choose other guides, call other ministers, hear them in their appointments, we must sever them from our present consideration; though there are important duties required of us towards them also. But what is alleged is necessary unto the constitution 303of a true disciple of Christ. Unto all those his great command is, mutual love among themselves. This he calls in an especial manner “his commandment,” and “a new commandment;” as for other reasons, so because he had given the first absolute great example of it in himself, as also discovered motives unto it and reasons for it which mankind before was in the dark unto. And such weight doth he lay on this command, that he declares the manifestation of the glory of God, his own honour, and the evidence to be given unto the world that we are his disciples, do depend on our obedience thereunto.
To express and exercise this love, in all the acts and duties of it, among his disciples, was one end of his appointing them to walk in church-relation one unto another, wherein this love is the bond of perfectness. And the loss of this love, as unto its due exercise, is no less a pernicious part of the fatal apostasy of the churches than is the loss of faith and worship: for hereon is Christendom, as it is usually called, become the greatest stage of hatred, rage, wrath, bloodshed, and mutual desolations that is in the whole world; so as that we have no way to answer the objection of the Jews arguing against us from the divine promises of love and peace in the kingdom of the Messiah, but by granting that all these things arise from a rebellion against his rule and kingdom. Now, this love in its exercise is eminently preserved in this order of particular churches; for, —
(1.) The principle of their collection into such societies, next unto that of faith in Christ Jesus, is love unto all the saints; for their conjunction being with some of them as such only, they must have a love unto all that are so. And none of them would join in such societies if their so doing did in any thing impair their love unto all the disciples of Christ, or impede it in any of its operations. And the communion of these churches among themselves is, and ought to be, such as that all of them do constitute as it were one body and common church; as we shall see afterward. And it is one principal duty of them to stir up themselves, in all their members, unto a continual exercise of love towards all the saints of Christ, as occasion doth require; and if they are defective in this catholic love, it is their fault, contrary to the rule and end of their institution.
(2.) Unto the constant expression and exercise of this love there are required, — [1.] Present suitable objects unto all the acts and duties of it; [2.] A description and prescription of those acts and duties; [3.] Rules for the right performance and exercise of them; [4.] An end to be attained in their discharge. All these things hath the Lord Christ provided for his disciples in the constitution and rule of these churches. And a due attendance unto them hath he appointed as the instance, trial, and experiment of their love unto all his disciples; 304for whereas they might pretend such a love, yet plead that they know not how nor wherein to express and exercise it, especially as unto sundry duties mentioned in the Scripture as belonging thereunto, he hath provided this way, wherein they cannot be ignorant of the duties of love required of them, nor of suitable objects, rules, and ends for their practice. It were too long to go over these things in particular. I shall only add (what is easily defensible) that gospel love will never be recovered and restored unto its pristine glory until particular churches or congregations are reformed and reduced to that exercise of love without dissimulation which is required in all their members among themselves; for whilst men live in envy and malice, be hateful and hating one another, or whilst they live in an open neglect of all those duties which the Lord Christ hath appointed to be observed towards the members of that society whereunto they do belong, as a pledge and evidence of their love unto all his disciples, no such thing can be attained. And thus is it in most parochial assemblies, who, in the midst of their complaints of the breach of love and union, by some men’s withholding communion in some parts of divine worship with them, yet, besides the common duties of civility and neighbourhood, neither know nor practice any thing of that spiritual love, delight, and communion that ought to be amongst them as members of the same church.
We boast not ourselves of any attainments in this kind, — we know how short we come of that fervent love that flourished in the first churches; but this we say, that there is no way to recover it but by that state and order of particular churches which we propose, and, κατὰ τὴν δοθεῖσαν δύναμιν, do adhere unto.
But pretences unto the contrary are vehemently urged, and the clamours unto that end are loud and many: for this way, it is said, of setting up particular congregations is that which hath caused endless divisions, and lost all love and Christian affection among us, being attended with other mischievous consequents, such as the most rhetorical adversaries of it are scarce able to declare, nor could Tertullus himself do it if he were yet alive; for by this means, men not meeting as they used to do at the administration of the sacrament and common-prayer, all love is lost among them. I answer, —
[1.] This objection, so far as I am able to observe, is mostly managed by them who seem to know very little of the nature and duties of that love which our Lord Jesus Christ enjoins in the gospel, nor do give any considerable evidence of their living, walking, and acting in the power of it. And as unto what they fancy unto themselves under that name, whereas it is evident from common practice that it extends no farther but to peaceableness in things civil and indifferent, with some expressions of kindness in their 305mirth and feasting, and other jovial societies, we are not concerned in it.
[2.] This objection lies not at all against the thing itself, — namely, that all churches of divine institution axe congregational, which alone at present is pleaded for, — but against the gathering of such societies or congregations in that state of things which now prevails amongst us. But whereas this depends on principles not yet declared and confirmed, the consideration of this part of the objection must be referred unto another place. I shall only say at present, that it is the greatest and most powerful engine in the hand of Satan, and men of corrupt secular interest, to keep all church reformation out of the world.
But if the way itself be changed (which alone, as absolutely considered, we at present defend), that change must be managed with respect unto some principles contrary unto love and its due exercise, which it doth assert and maintain, or some practices that it puts men upon of the same nature and tendency. But this hitherto hath not been attempted, at least not effected.
[3.] We do not find that a joint participation of the same ordinances at the same time, within the same walls, is in itself either an effect, or evidence, or duty of gospel love, or any means for the preservation or promotion of it; for it was diligently observed in the Papacy, When all true evangelical love, faith, and worship were lost. Yea, this kind of communion and conjunction, added unto an implicit dependence on the authority of the church, was substituted in their room; and multitudes were contented with them, as those which did bestead them in their neglect of all other graces and their exercise. And I wish it were not so among others, who suppose they have all the love that is required of them, if they are freed from such scandalous variances with their neighbours as should make them unfit for the communion.
[4.] If this be the only means of love, how do men maintain it towards any not of their own parish, seeing they never meet with them at the sacrament of the Lord’s supper? And if they can live in love with those of other parishes, why can they not do so with those who, having the same faith and sacraments with them, do meet apart, for the exercise of divine worship, in such congregations as we have described? Wherefore, —
[5.] The variance that is pretended to be caused by the setting up of these particular congregations is a part of that variance which Christ came to send into the world: Matt. x. 34–36, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against 306her mother-in-law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.” He was the Prince of Peace; he came to make peace between God and men, between men themselves, Jews and Gentiles; he taught nothing, enjoined nothing that in its own nature should have the least inconsistency with peace, or give countenance unto variance: but he declares what would ensue and fall out, through the sin, the darkness, unbelief, and enmity unto the truth that would continue on some under the preaching of the gospel, whilst others of their nearest relations should embrace the truth and profession of it. What occasion for this variance is taken from the gathering of these congregations, which the way itself doth neither cause nor give the least countenance unto, we are not accountable for. Whereas, therefore, there is with those among whom these variances, and loss of love thereby, are pretended, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one hope of their calling,” — the same truth of the gospel preached, the same sacraments administered; and whereas both the principles of the way and the persons of those who assemble in distinct corporations for the celebration of divine worship, do lead unto love and the practice of it in all its known duties, — all the evils that ensue on this way must be charged on the enmity, hatred, pride, and secular interest of men; which it is not in our power to cure.
2. Another end of the institution of this state is, that the church might be the “pillar and ground of the truth,” 1 Tim. iii. 15, — that is, that it might be the principal outward means to support, preserve, publish declare, and propagate the doctrine or truth of the gospel, especially that concerning the person and offices of Christ; which the apostle subjoins unto this assertion in the next words. That church-state which doth not answer this end is not of divine institution; but this the ministry of these churches is eminently suited unto. There are three things required in this duty, or required unto this end, theft the church be the pillar and ground of truth:— (1.) That it preserve the truth in itself, and in the profession of all its members, against all seducers, false teachers, and errors. This the apostle gives in special charge unto the elders of the church of Ephesus, adding the reasons of it, Acts xx. 28–31. This is in an especial manner committed unto the officers of the church, 1 Tim. v. 20; 2 Tim. i. 13, 14. This the ministry of these churches is meet and suited unto. The continual inspection which they may and ought to have into all the members of the church, added unto that circumspection about and trial of the doctrines preached by themselves, in the whole body of the church, fits them for this work. This is the fundamental means (on the matter the only outward means) that the Lord Christ hath appointed for the preservation of the truth of the gospel in this world, whereby the church is the pillar and ground of 307truth. How this can be done where churches are of that make and constitution that the officers of them can have no immediate inspection into or cognizance of either the knowledge, opinions, or practices of the members of their church, nor the body of the church know on any evident ground what it is that their principal officer believes and teaches, I know not. By this means was the truth preserved in the churches of the first two centuries, wherein they had no officers but what were placed in particular churches, so as that no considerable error made any entrance among them. (2.) That each church take care that the same truth be preserved entire, as unto the profession of it, in all other churches. Their communion among themselves (whereof afterward) is built upon their common ὁμολογία, or profession of the same faith. This, therefore, it is their duty, and was always their practice, to look after, that it was preserved entire; for a change in the faith of any of them they knew would be the dissolution of their communion. Wherefore, when any thing of that nature fell out, as it did in the church of Antioch upon the preaching of the necessity of circumcision and keeping of the law, whereby the souls of many of the disciples were subverted, the church at Jerusalem, on the notice and knowledge of it, helped them with their advice and counsel. And Eusebius tells us, that upon the first promulgation of the heresies and frenzies of Montanus, the faithful, or churches in Asia, met frequently in sundry places to examine his pretences and condemn his errors; whereby the churches in Phrygia were preserved, Hist. Eccl., lib. v. cap. 14. So the same was done afterward in the case of Samosatenus at Antioch, whereby that church was delivered from the infection of his pernicious heresy, lib. vii. cap. 27, 28, 29. And this care is still incumbent on every particular church, if it would approve itself to be the pillar and ground of truth. And in like manner Epiphanius, giving an account of the original of the heresy of Noetus, a Patropassian, affirms that the holy presbyters of the church called him, and inquired of his opinion several times; whereon, being convicted before the presbytery of enormous errors, he was cast out of the church: Ἀλλὰ μεταξὺ τούτων (when he began to disperse his errors) ἀπὸ τῆς περὶ αὐτὸν ἐνηχήσεως οἱ μακάριοι πρεσβύτεροι τὴς ἐκκλησίας προσκαλεσάμενοι αὐτὸν ἐξητάζον περὶ τούτων ἁπάντων· — ὁ δὲ τὰ πρῶτα ἠρεῖτο ἐπὶ τοῦ πρεσβυτερίου ἀγόμενος, Epiphanius, Hæres. cont. Noet., Hær. xxxviii. sec. 57.
Hence it was that the doctrine of the church, as unto the substance of it, was preserved entire during the first two centuries, and somewhat after. Indeed, as when the Israelites came out of Egypt, there came along with them a “mixed multitude” of other people, Exod. xii. 38, which fell to “lusting” for meat when they came into the wilderness, Num. xi. 4, to the danger of the whole congregation: so when 308Christianity was first preached and received in the world, besides those who embraced it sincerely, and were added unto the church, there was a great mixture of stubborn Jews, as the Ebionites; of philosophical Greeks, as the Valentinians and the Marcionites; of plain impostors, such as Simon Magus and Menander; who all of them pretended to be Christians, but they fell a lusting, and exceedingly troubled and perplexed the churches with an endeavour to seduce them unto their imaginations. Yet none of their abominations could force an entrance into the churches themselves; which, by the means insisted on, were preserved. But when this church-state and order was changed, and another gradually introduced in the room of it, errors and heresies got new advantages, and entered into the churches themselves, which before did only assault and perplex them; for, —
[1.] When prerogative and pre-eminence of any single person in the church began to be in esteem, not a few who failed in their attempts of attaining it, to revenge themselves on the church made it their business to invent and propagate pernicious heresies. So did Thebuthis at Jerusalem, Euseb., lib. iv. cap. 22; and Valentinus, Tertul ad Valentine, cap. iv.; and Marcion at Rome, Epiphan. Hæres. xlii. Montanus fell into his dotage on the same account; so did Novatianus at Rome, Euseb., lib. vi. cap. 43, and Arius at Alexandria. Hence is that censure of them by Lactantius, lib. iv. cap. 30: “Ii quorum fides fuit lubrica, cum Deum nosse se et colere simularent, augendis opibus et honori studentes, affectabant maximum sacerdotium, et a potioribus victi, secedere cum suffragatoribus maluerunt, quam eos ferre præpositos quibus concupierant ipsi ante præponi.”
[2.] When any of their bishops of the new constitution, whether patriarchal or diocesan, fell into heresies, which they did frequently, and theft numbers of them, they had so many advantages to diffuse their poison into the whole body of their churches, and such political interests for their promotion, as that the churches themselves were thoroughly infected with them. It is true, the body of the people in many places did oppose them, withdraw and separate from them; but it cannot be denied but that this was the first way and means whereby the churches ceased to be the ground and pillar of truth, many destructive errors being received into them, which did only outwardly assault them whilst they abode in their first institution. And had not the churches, in process of time, utterly lost their primitive state and order, by coalescing into one papal, pretended universal church, the faith itself could never have been so utterly corrupted, depraved, and lost among them, as in the issue it was.
(3.) To propagate the gospel is in like manner required hereunto. 309This, I acknowledge, doth more immediately concern the duty of persons in any church-order than the order itself; for it must be the work of some particular persons dedicating themselves unto their ministry, as it was in the first churches,3 John 5–8.
The like may be said of any other public acknowledged end of the institution of churches. If the way pleaded for be not consistent with them all, and the proper means of attaining them, if it be not suited unto their accomplishment, let it be discarded. I shall insist on one more only.
3. Our Lord Jesus Christ hath given that state unto his churches, hath instated them in that order, as that his interest, kingdom, and religion might be carried on in the world without prejudice or disadvantage unto any of the lawful interests of men, especially without any opposition unto or interfering with the civil authority or magistracy, which is the ordinance of God; and no church-way that doth so is of his institution. Wherefore, I shall briefly declare what are the principles of those of this way in these things, which are the principles of the way itself which they do profess:—
(1.) Our first general assertion unto this purpose is this: The Lord Jesus Christ taught no doctrine, appointed no order in his church, gave it no power, that is opposite unto or inconsistent with any righteous government in this world, of what sort soever it be, of those whereinto government is distributed in reason and practice. His doctrine, indeed, is opposed unto all unrighteousness in and of all men, magistrates and others; but not to the legal rule of magistrates that are unrighteous men. And this opposition is doctrinal only, confirmed with promises and threatenings of eternal things, refusing and despising all outward aids of force and restraint. This rule we allow for the trial of all churches and their state, whether they be according unto the mind of Christ.
But whereas the Lord Jesus Christ hath taught, commanded, appointed nothing that is contrary unto or inconsistent with righteous government of any sort, if rulers or magistrates shall forbid the observance of what he hath commanded, appointed, and ordered, and then charge it on him or his way that his disciples cannot, dare not, will not comply with that prohibition, and accuse them thereon of sedition and opposition unto government, they deal injuriously with him, whereof they must give an account; for, whereas “all power is given unto him in heaven and earth,” all nations are his inheritance, all people in his absolute disposal, and it is his pleasure to set up his kingdom in the earth, without which the earth itself would not be continued, he could not deal more gently with the righteous rulers of this world (and he did it because righteous rule is the ordinance of God), than to order all things so, that whether they receive 310his law and doctrine or no, nothing should be done in opposition unto them or their rule. And if any of them are not contented with this measure, but will forbid the observance of what he commands, where in he alone is concerned, and not they, this is left to be determined between him and them. In the meantime, when rulers are not able to fancy, much less give a real instance of, any one principle, doctrine, or practice, in any of the churches of Christ, or any belonging unto them, that is contrary unto, or inconsistent with, the rights or exercise of their rule and government, and yet shall not only prohibit the doing of those things which he hath commanded merely with respect unto the spiritual and eternal ends of his kingdom, but shall also punish and destroy those who will not disown his authority and comply with their prohibition, it doth scarce answer their interest and prudence; for to what purpose is it for any to provoke him who is mightier than they, when they have no appearance of necessity for their so doing, nor advantage thereby?
(2.) In particular, the Lord Christ hath ordained no power or order in his church, no office or duty, that should stand in need of the civil authority, sanction, or force to preserve it, or make it effectual unto its proper ends. It is sufficient to discharge any thing of a pretence to be an appointment of Christ in his church, if it be not sufficient unto its own proper end, without the help of the civil magistrate. That church-state which is either constituted by human authority, or cannot consist without it, is not from him. That ordinance which is in its own nature divine, or is pretended so to be, so far as it is not effectual unto its end without the aid of human authority is not of him; he needs it not. He will not borrow the assistance of civil authority to rule in and over the consciences of men, with respect unto their living to God and coming unto the enjoyment of himself.
The way of requiring the sanction of civil authority unto ecclesiastical orders and determinations began with the use of general councils in the days of Constantine; and when once it was engaged in and approved, so far as that what was determined in the synods, either as to doctrine or as unto the rule of the church, should be confirmed by the imperial authority, with penalties on all that should gainsay such determinations, it is deplorable to consider what mutual havoc was made among Christians upon the various sentiments of synods and emperors. Yet this way pleased the rulers of the church so well, and, as they thought, eased them of so much trouble, that it was so far improved amongst them, that at last they left no power in or about religion or religious persons unto the civil magistrate, but what was to be exercised in the execution of the decrees and determinations of the church.
311It is necessary, from this institution of particular churches, that they have their subsistence, continuation, order, and the efficacy of all that they act and do as churches, from Christ himself; for whereas all that they are and do is heavenly, spiritual, and not of this world, so that it reacheth nothing of all those things which are under the power of the magistrate (that is, the lives and bodies of men, and all civil interests appertaining to them), and affects nothing but what no power of all the magistrates under heaven can reach unto (that is, the souls and consciences of men), — no trouble can hence arise unto any rulers of the world, no contests about what they ought and what they ought not to confirm; which have caused great disorders among many.
(3.) In particular, also, there neither is nor can be in this church-state the least pretence of power or authority to be acted towards or over the persons of kings or rulers, which should either impeach their right or impede the exercise of their just authority; for as Christ hath granted no such power unto the church, so it is impossible that any pretence of it should be seated in a particular congregation, especially being gathered on this principle, that there is no church-power properly so called but what is so seated, and that no concurrence, agreement, or association of many churches can add a new, greater, or other power or authority unto them than what they had singly before. And what power can such churches act towards kings, potentates, or rulers of nations? Have they not the highest security that it is utterly impossible that ever their authority, or their persons in the exercise of it, should be impeached, hindered, or receive any detriment from any thing that belongs to this church-state?
These principles, I say, are sufficient to secure Christian religion, and the state, order, and power of churches instituted therein, from all reflections of inconsistency with civil government, or of influencing men unto attempts of its change or ruin. The sum is:— Let the outward frame and order of righteous government be of what sort it will, nothing inconsistent with it, nothing intrenching on it, nothing making opposition unto it, is appointed by Jesus Christ, or doth belong unto that church-state which he hath ordained and established.
Two things only must be added unto these principles, that we may not seem so to distinguish the civil state and the church as to make them unconcerned in each other; for, —
First, It is the unquestionable duty of the rulers and governors of the world, upon the preaching of the gospel, to receive its truth, and to yield obedience unto its commands. And whereas all power and offices are to be discharged for God, whose ministers all rulers be, they are bound, in the discharge of their office, to countenance, supply, 312and protect the profession and professors of the truth, — that is, the church, — according unto the degrees and measures which they shall judge necessary.
Secondly, It is the duty of the church, materially considered, — that is, of all those who are members of it, — in any kingdom or commonwealth, to be usefully subservient, even as Christians, unto that rule which is over them as men, in all those ways, and by all those means, which the laws, usages, and customs of the countries whereof they are do direct and prescribe. But these things are frequently spoken unto.
There are sundry other considerations whereby it may be evinced that this order and state of gospel churches is not only consistent with every righteous government in the world (I mean, that is so in its constitution, though, as all other forms, it be capable of maladministration), but the most useful and subservient unto its righteous administration, being utterly incapable of immixing itself, as such, in any of those occasions of the world or state affairs as may create the least difficulty or trouble unto rulers. With others it is not so. It is known that the very constitution of the papal church, as it is stated in the canons of it, is inconsistent with the just rights of kings and rulers, and ofttimes, in the exercise of its power, destructive unto their persons and dominions. And herein concurred the prelatical church-state of England, whilst it continued in their communion, and held its dependence on the Roman church; for although, they had all their power originally from the kings of this realm, — as the records and laws of it do expressly affirm, “That the church of England was founded in episcopacy by the king and his nobles,” — yet they claimed such an addition of power and authority, by virtue of their office from the papal omnipotency, as that they were ringleaders in perplexing the government of this nation, under the pretence of maintaining what they called the “rights of the church.” And hereunto they were enabled by the very constitution of their church-order, which gave them that power, grandeur, with political interest, that were needful to effectuate their design. And since they have been taken off from this foundation of contesting kings and princes on their own ecclesiastical authority, and deprived of their dependence on the power and interest of the papal see, having no bottom for or supportment of their church state and order but regal favour and mutable laws, there have, on such causes and reasons, which I shall not mention, ensued such emulations of the nobility and gentry, and such contempts of the common people, as leave it questionable whether their adherence unto the government be not note burdensome and dangerous unto it than were their ancient contests and oppositions.
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