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The duty of believers to join themselves in church-order.
Unto some one or other of those particular congregations which we have described, continuing to be the pillar and ground of truth, it is the duty of every believer, of every disciple of Christ, to join himself for the due and orderly observation and performance of the commands of Christ, unto the glory of God and their own edification, Matt. xxviii. 18–20.
This, in general, is granted by all sorts and parties of men; the 320grant of it is the ground whereon they stand in the management of their mutual feuds in religion, pleading that men ought to be of, or join themselves unto, this or that church, — still supposing that it is their duty to be of one or another.
Yea, it is granted, also, that persons ought to choose what churches they will join themselves unto, wherein they may have the best advantage unto their edification and salvation. They are to choose, to join themselves unto, that church which is in all thugs most according to the mind of God.
This, it is supposed, is the liberty and duty of every man; for if it be not so, it is the foolishest thing in the world for any to attempt to got others from one church unto another; which is almost the whole business of religion that some think themselves concerned to attend unto.
But yet, notwithstanding these concessions, when things come to the trial in particular, there is very little granted in compliance with the assertion laid down; for besides that it is not a church of divine institution that is intended in these concessions, when it comes unto the issue where a man is born, and in what church he is baptized in his infancy, then all choice is printed, and in the communion of that church he is to abide, on the penalties of being esteemed and dealt withal as a schismatic. In what national church any person is baptized, in that national church he is to continue, or answer the contrary at his peril; and in the precincts of what parish his habitation falls to be, in that particular parish church is he bound to communicate in all ordinances of worship. I say, in the judgment of many, whatever is pretended of men’s joining themselves unto the truest and purest churches, there is no liberty of judgment or practice in either of these things left unto any of the disciples of Christ.
Wherefore, the liberty and duty proposed being the foundation of all orderly evangelical profession, and that wherein the consciences of believers are greatly concerned, I shall lay down one proposition wherein it is asserted in the sense I intend, and then fully confirm it.
The proposition itself is this:—
It is the duty of every one who professeth faith in Christ Jesus, and takes due care of his own eternal salvation, voluntarily and by his own choice to join himself unto some particular congregation of Christ’s institution, for his own spiritual edification, and the right discharge of his commands.
1. This duty is prescribed unto them only who profess faith in Christ Jesus, who own themselves to be his disciples, that call Jesus Lord; for this is the method of the gospel, that first men by the preaching of it be made disciples, or be brought unto faith in Christ 321Jesus, and then be taught to do and observe whatever he commands, Matt. xxviii. 18–20, — first to “believe,” and then to be “added unto the church,” Acts ii. 41, 42, 44, 46, 47. Men must first join unto the Lord, or give up themselves unto him, before they can give up themselves unto the church, according to the mind of Christ, 2 Cor. viii. 5. We are not, therefore, concerned at present as unto them who either do not at all profess faith in Christ Jesus, or else, through ignorance of the fundamental principles of religion and wickedness of life, do destroy or utterly render useless that profession. We do not say it is the duty of such persons, — that is, their immediate duty, — in the state wherein they are, to join themselves unto any church. Nay, it is the duty of every church to refuse them their communion whilst they abide in that state. There are other duties to be in the first place pressed on them, whereby they may be made meet for this. So in the primitive times, although in the extraordinary conversions unto Christianity that were made among the Jews, who before belonged unto God’s covenant, they were all immediately added unto the church, yet afterward, in the ordinary way of the conversion of men, the churches did not immediately admit them into complete communion, but kept them as catechumeners, for the increase of their knowledge and trial of their profession, until they were judged meet to be joined unto the church. And they are not to blame who receive not such into complete communion with them, unto whom it is not a present duty to desire that communion. Yea, the admission of such persons into church-societies, much more the compelling of them to be members of this or that church, almost whether they will or no, is contrary to the rule of the word, the example of the primitive churches, and a great expedient to harden men in their sins.
We do therefore avow, that we cannot admit any into our church-societies, as to complete membership and actual interest in the privileges of the church, who do not, by a profession of faith in and obedience unto Jesus Christ, no way contradicted by sins of life, manifest themselves to be such as whose duty it is to join themselves unto any church Neither do we injure any baptized persons hereby, or oppose any of their right unto and interest in the church; but only, as they did universally in the primitive churches, after the death of the apostles, we direct them into that way and method wherein they may be received, unto the glory of Christ and their own edification. And we do therefore alarm, that we will never deny that communion unto any person, high or low, rich or poor, old or young, male or female, whose duty it is to desire it.
2. It is added, in the description of the subject, that it is such one who takes due care of his own salvation. Many there are who 322profess themselves to be Christians, who, it may be, hear the word willingly, and do many things gladly, yet do not esteem themselves obliged unto a diligent inquiry into and a precise observation of all the commands of Christ. But it is such whom we intend who constantly fix their minds on the enjoyment of God as their chiefest good and utmost end; who thereon duly consider the means of attaining it, and apply themselves thereunto. And it is to be feared that the number of such persons will not be found to be very great in the world; which is sufficient to take off the reproach from some particular congregations of the smallness of their number. Such they ever were; and such is it foretold that they should be. Number was never yet esteemed a note of the true church by any, but those whose worldly interest it is that it should so be; yet at present, absolutely in these nations, the number of such persons is not small.
3. Of these persons it is said that it is their duty so to dispose of themselves. It is not that which they may do as a convenience or an advantage, not that which others may do for them, but which they must do for themselves in a way of duty. It is an obediential act unto the commands of Christ; whereunto is required subjection of conscience unto his authority, faith in his promises, as also a respect unto an appearance before his judgment-throne at the last day. The way of the church of Rome, to compel men into their communion, and keep them in it, by fire and fagot, or any other means of external force, derives more from the Alcoran than the Gospel. Neither doth it answer the mind of Christ, in the institution, end, and order of church-societies, that men should become members of them partly by that which is no way in their own power, and partly by what their wills are regulated in by the laws of men; for it is, as was said, commonly esteemed that men being born and baptized in such a nation are thereby made members of the church of that nation, and by living within such parochial precincts as the law of the land hath arbitrarily established are members of this or that particular congregation. At least, they are accounted so far to belong unto these churches, as to render them liable unto all outward punishments that shall be thought meet to be inflicted on them who comply not with them. So far as these persuasions and actings according unto them do prevail, so far are they destructive of the principal foundation of the external being and order of the church. But that men’s joining themselves in or unto any church-society is, or ought to be, a voluntary act, or an act of free choice, in mere obedience unto the authority and commands of Christ, is so sacred a truth, so evident in the Scripture, so necessary from its subject-matter, so testified unto by the practice of all the first churches, as that it despiseth all opposition. And I know not how any can reconcile the 323common practice of giving men the reputation or reality of being members of or belonging unto this or that church, as unto total communion, who desire or choose no such thing, unto this acknowledged principle.
4. There is a double joining unto the church:— (1.) That which is as unto total communion in all the duties and privileges of the church; which is that whereof we treat. (2.) An adherence unto the church as unto the means of instruction and edification to be attained thereby. So persons may adhere unto any church who yet are not meet or free, on some present consideration, to confederate with it as unto total communion; see Acts v. 13, 14. And of this sort, in a peculiar manner, are the baptized children of the members of the church; for although they are not capable of performing church-duties or enjoying church-privileges in their tender years, nor can have a right unto total communion before the testification of their own voluntary consent thereunto and choice thereof, yet are they in a peculiar manner under the care and inspection of the church, so far as the outward administration of the covenant, in all the means of it, is committed thereunto; and their duty it is, according to their capacity, to attend unto the ministry of that church whereunto they do belong.
5. The proposition respects a visible professing church. And I intend such a church in general as avoweth authority from Christ, — (1.) For the ministerial preaching of the word; (2.) Administration of the Sacraments; (3.) For the exercise of evangelical discipline; and, (4.) To give a public testimony against the devil and the world, not contradicting their profession with any corrupt principles or practices inconsistent with it. What is required in particular, that any of them may be meet to be joined unto such a church we shall afterward inquire.
6. It is generally said that “out of the church there is no salvation;” and the truth hereof is testified unto in the Scriptures, Acts ii. 47; 1 Pet. iii. 20, 21; Matt. xvi. 18; Eph. v. 25–27; John x. 16.
7. This is true both positively and negatively of the catholic church invisible, of the elect; all that are of it shall be saved, and none shall be saved but those that belong unto it, Eph. v. 25–27; — of the catholic visible professing church negatively; that no adult person can be saved that doth not belong unto this church, Rom. x. 10.
8. This position of truth is abused by interest and pride, an enclosure of it being made by them who, of all Christians in the world, can lay the least and weakest claim unto it, — namely, the church of Rome; for they are so far from being that catholic church out of which there is no salvation, and wherein none can perish, like the ark of Noah, that it requires the highest charity to reckon them unto 324that visible professing church whereof the greatest part may perish, and do so undoubtedly.
9. Our inquiry is, what truth there is in this assertion with respect unto these particular churches or societies for the celebration of gospel worship and discipline whereof we treat; and I say, —
(1.) No church, of what denomination soever, can lay a claim unto this privilege as belonging unto itself alone. This was the ancient Donatism; they confined salvation unto the churches of their way alone. And after many false charges of it on others, it begins really to be renewed in our days; for some dispute that salvation is confined unto that church alone wherein there is a succession of diocesan bishops; which is the height of Donatism. The judgments and determinations made concerning the eternal salvation or damnation of men by the measures of some differences among Christians about churches, their state and order, are absurd, foolish, and impious; and for the most part used by them who sufficiently proclaim that they know neither what it is to be saved, nor do use any diligence about the necessary means of it. Salvation depends absolutely on no particular church-state in the world; he knows not the gospel who can really think it doth. Persons of believers are not for the church, but the church is for them. If the ministry of angels be for them who are heirs of salvation, much more is the ministry of the church so. If a man be an adulterer, an idolater, a railer, a hater and scoffer of godliness; if he choose to live in any known sin, without repentance, or in the neglect of any known duty; if he be ignorant and profane; a word, if he be not born again from above, be he of what church he will, and whatsoever place he possesses therein, he cannot be saved. And on the other side, if a man believe in Christ Jesus, — that is, know him in his person, offices, doctrine, and grace; trust unto him for all the ends of the wisdom and love of God towards mankind in him; if he endeavour to yield sincere and universal obedience unto all his commands, and to be conformed unto him, in all things following his example, having for these ends received of his Spirit, — though all the churches in the world should reject him, yet he shall undoubtedly be saved. If any shall hence infer that then it is all one of what church any one is, I answer, — [1.] That although the being of this or that or any particular church in the world will not secure the salvation of any men, yet the adherence unto some churches, or such as are so called, in their constitution and worship, may prejudice, yea, ruin the salvation of any that shall so do. [2.] The choice of what church we will join unto belongs unto the choice and use of the means for our edification; and he that makes no conscience hereof, but merely with respect unto the event of being saved at last, will probably come short thereof.
325(2.) On this supposition, that there be no insuperable difficulties lying in the way of the discharge of this duty, — as that a person be cast by the providence of God into such a place or season as wherein there is no Church that he can possibly join himself unto, or that he be unjustly refused communion, by unwarrantable conditions of it, as it was with many during the prevalency of the Papacy in all the western empire, — it is the indispensable duty of every disciple of Christ, in order unto his edification and salvation, voluntarily, and of his own Choice, to join himself in and unto some particular congregation, for the celebration of divine worship, and the due observation of all the institutions and commands of Christ: which we shall now farther confirm:—
[1.] The foundation of this duty, as was before declared, doth lie in the law and light of nature. Man cannot exercise the principal powers and faculties of his soul, with which he was created, and whereby he is enabled to glorify God, which is the end of him and them, without a consent and conjunction in the worship of God in communion and society; as hath been proved before.
[2.] The Way whereby this is to be done God hath declared and revealed from the beginning, by the constitution of a church-state, through the addition of arbitrary institutions of worship unto what was required by the law of nature: for this gives the true state, and is the formal reason of a church, — namely, a divine addition of arbitrary institutions of worship unto the necessary dictates of the law of nature unto that end; and the especial nature of any church-state doth depend on the especial nature of those institutions, which is constitutive Of the difference between the church-state of the Old Testament and that of the New.
[3.] Such a church-state was constituted and appointed under the Old Testament, founded in and on an especial covenant between God and the people, Exod. xxiv. Unto this church every one that would please God and walk before him was bound to join himself, by the ways and means that he had appointed for that end, — namely, by circumcision, and their “laying hold on the covenant of God,” Exod. xii. 48; Isa. lvi. 4. And this joining unto the church is called “joining unto the Lord,” Isa. lvi. 6, Jer. l. 5; as being the means thereof, without which it could not be done. Herein was the tabernacle of God with men, and he dwelt among them.
[4.] As a new church-state is prophesied of under the New Testament, Ezek. xxxiv. 25–29, Isa. lxvi. 18–22, and other places innumerable, so it was actually erected by Jesus Christ; as we have declared. And whereas it is introduced and established in the place and room of the church-state under the Old Testament, which was to be removed at the time of reformation, as the apostle demonstrates 326at large in his Epistle to the Hebrews, all the commands, promises, and threatenings given or annexed unto that church-state, concerning the conjunction of men unto it and walking in it, are transferred unto this of the new erection of Christ. Wherefore, although the state of the church itself be reduced from that which was nation ally congregational unto that which is simply and absolutely so, and all the ordinances of its instituted worship are changed, with new rules for the observation of what we are directed unto by the light of nature, yet the commands, promises, and threatenings made and given unto it as a church are all in full force with respect unto this new church-state; and we need no new commands to render it our duty to join in evangelical churches for the ends of a church in general.
[5.] The Lord Christ hath disposed all the ways and means of edification unto these churches; so that ordinarily, and under an expectation of his presence in them and concurrence unto their efficacy, they are not otherwise to be enjoyed. Such are the ordinary dispensation of the word, and administration of the sacraments. For any disciple of Christ to live in a neglect of these things and the enjoyment of them according to his mind, is to despise his care and wisdom in providing for his eternal welfare.
[6.] He hath prescribed sundry duties unto us, both as necessary and as evidences of our being his disciples, such as cannot be orderly performed but as we are members of some particular congregation. This also hath been before declared.
[7.] The institution of these churches is the way which Christ hath ordained to render his kingdom visible or conspicuous, in distinction from and opposition unto the kingdom of Satan and the world. And he doth not, in a due manner, declare himself a subject in or unto the kingdom of Christ who doth not solemnly engage h this way. It is not enough to constitute a legal subject of the kingdom of England that he is born in the nation, and lives in some outward observance of the laws of it, if he refuse solemnly to express his allegiance in the way appointed by the law for that end. Nor will it constitute a regular subject of the kingdom of Christ that he is born in a place where the gospel is professed, and so professeth a general compliance therewith, if he refuse to testify his subjection by the way that Christ hath appointed for that end. It is true, the whole nation, in their civil relation and subordination according to law, is the kingdom of England; but the representation of the kingly power and rule in it is in the courts of all sorts, wherein the kingly power is acted openly and visibly. And he that lives in the nation, yet denies his homage unto these courts, is not to be esteemed a subject, So doth the whole visible professing church, in one or more 327nations or lesser precincts of people and places, constitute the visible kingdom of Christ; yet is no particular person to be esteemed a legal, true subject of Christ that doth not appear in these his courts with a solemn expression of his homage unto him.
[8.] The whole administration of the rule and discipline appointed by Christ is confined unto these churches, nor can they be approved by whom that rule is despised. I shall not argue farther in a case whose truth is of so uncontrollable evidence. In all the writings of the New Testament, recording things after the ascension of Christ, there is no mention of any of his disciples with approbation, unless they were extraordinary officers, but such as were entire members of these assemblies.
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