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What sort of churches the disciples of Christ may and ought to join themselves unto as unto entire communion.
We have proved before that it is the duty of all individual Christians to give themselves up unto the conduct, fellowship, and communion of some particular church or congregation. Our present inquiry hereon is, whereas there is a great diversity among professing societies in the world, concerning each whereof it is said, “Lo, here is Christ,” and “Lo, there is Christ,” what church, of what constitution and order, any one that takes care of his own edification and salvation ought to join himself unto. This I shall speak unto first in general, and then in the examination of one particular case or instance, wherein many at this day are concerned. And some things must b premised unto the right stating of the subject of our inquiry:—
1. The diversities and divisions among churches, which respect is 335to be had unto in the choice of any which we will or ought to join unto, are of two sorts:—
(1.) Such as are occasioned by the remaining weaknesses, infirmities, and ignorance of the best of men, whereby they know but in part, and prophesy only in part; wherein our edification is concerned, but our salvation not endangered.
(2.) Such as are in and about things fundamental in faith, worship, and obedience. We shall speak to both of them.
2. All Christians were originally of one mind in all things needful unto joint communion, so as that there might be among them all love without dissimulation. Howbeit there was great variety, not only in the measure of their apprehensions of the doctrines of truth, but in some doctrines themselves, — as about the continuance of the observations of the law, or at least of some of them; as also oppositions from without unto the truth by heretics and apostates: neither of which hindered the church-communion of true believers. But the diversity, difference, and divisions that are now among churches in the world is the effect of the great apostasy which befell them all in the latter ages, as unto the spirit, rule, and practice of those which were planted by the apostles; and will not be healed until that apostasy be abolished.
3. Satan having possessed himself of the advantage of these divisions, whereof he was the author, he makes use of them to act his malice and rage, in stirring up and instigating one party to persecute, oppress, and devour another, until the life, power, and glory of Christian religion is almost lost in the world. It requires, therefore, great wisdom to deport ourselves aright among these divisions, so as to contribute nothing unto the ends of malice designed by Satan in them.
4. In this state of things, until it may be cured, — which it will never be by any of the ways yet proposed and insisted on, — the inquiry is concerning the duty of any one who takes care of his own soul as unto a conjunction with some church or other. And on the negative part, I say, —
(1.) Such a one is bound not to join with any church or society where any fundamental article of faith is rejected or corrupted. There may be a fundamental error in a true church for a season, when the church erreth not fundamentally, 1 Cor. xv. 12; 2 Tim. ii. 18. But I suppose the error in or against the foundation is part of the profession of the church or society to be joined unto; for thereby the nature of the church is destroyed, — it doth not hold the Head, nor abide on the foundation, nor is the pillar and ground of truth. Wherefore, although the Socinians, under a pretence of love, forbearance, and mutual toleration, do offer us the communion of their 336churches, wherein there is somewhat of order and discipline commendable, yet it is unlawful to join in church fellowship or communion with them: for their errors about the Trinity, the incarnation Christ, and his satisfaction, are destructive of the foundation of the prophets and apostles; and idolatry, in the divine worship of a mere creature, is introduced by them.
(2.) Where there is in any church taught or allowed a mixture of doctrines or opinions that are prejudicial unto gospel holiness and obedience, no man that takes due care of his salvation can join himself unto it; for the original rule and measure of all church-communion is agreement in the doctrine of truth. Where, therefore, there is either not a stable profession of the same doctrine in all substantial truths of the gospel, but an uncertain sound is given, some saying one thing, some another, or that opposition is made unto any truths of the importance before mentioned, none can be bound or obliged to hold communion with it, nor can incur any blame by refraining from it: for it is the duty of a Christian in all things προτιμᾶν τὴν ἀλήθειαν, and to join with such a church would, — [1.] Stain their profession; [2.] Hinder their edification; [3.] Establish a new rule of communion, unknown to the Scriptures, — namely, besides truth; as might easily be manifested.
(3.) Where the fundamentals of religious worship are corrupted or overthrown, it is absolutely unlawful to join unto or abide in any church. So is it with the church of Rome. The various ways whereby the foundations of divine religious worship are overthrown in that church, by superstition and idolatry, have been sufficiently declared. These render the communion of that church pernicious.
(4.) Nor can any man be obliged to join himself with any church, nor can it be his duty so to do, where the eternally fixed rule and measure of religious worship, — namely, that it be of divine institution, — is varied or changed by any additions unto it or subtractions from it; for whereas one principal end of all churches is the joint celebration of divine worship, if there be not a certain stable rule thereof in any church of divine prescription, no man can be obliged unto communion therewith.
(5.) Where the fundamentals of church order, practice, and discipline are destroyed, it is not lawful for any man to join in church communion. These fundamentals are of two sorts, — [1.] Such as concern the ministry of the church; [2.] Such as concern the church itself.
[1.] There are four things that are necessary fundamentals unto the order of the church on the part of the ministry:—
1st. That all the ministers or officers of it be duly chosen by the church itself, and solemnly set apart in the church unto their office, 337according unto the rule and law of Christ. This is fundamental unto church-order, the root of it, from whence all other parts of it do spring. And it is that which is ῤητῶς, or expressly provided for in the Scripture, as we shall see. If there be a neglect herein, and no other relation required between ministers, elders, rulers, bishops, and the church, but what is raised and created by ways and rules of men’s appointment; or if there be a temporary disposal of persons into a discharge of that office, without a solemn call, choice, ordination, and separation unto the office itself and its work, — the law of Christ is violated and the order of the church disturbed in its foundation.
2dly. That those who are called unto the office of the ministry be duly qualified, by their endowment with spiritual gifts, for the discharge of their duty, is fundamental unto the ministry. That the Lord Jesus Christ doth still continue his dispensation of spiritual gifts unto men, to fit and enable them unto the office and work of the ministry; that if he doth not do so, or should at any time cease so to do, the whole office of the ministry must cease, and the being of the church with it; that it is altogether useless for any churches or persons to erect an image of the gospel ministry by outward rites and ceremonies, without the enlivening force of these spiritual gifts, — I have proved sufficiently in my “Discourse of Spiritual Gifts, and their Continuance in the Church.”1414 See note on page 249. [These words are printed in the original edition as if they were the title of a particular treatise by our author. His treatise under that title will be found in vol. iv. of his doctrinal works; but it seems to have been published in 1693, twelve years after the present work appeared. Such a discourse is promised in his preface to his treatise on “the Work of the Holy Spirit in Prayer,” which was published in 1682, a year after the publication of the present work. There is some discussion on the subject of spiritual gifts in the first chapter of his great work on the Holy Spirit; but a special and separate treatise seems alluded to in the text above. To the “Discourse of Spiritual Gifts,” as published in 1693, there is a preface by Nathaniel Mather; from which the reader is led to infer that it was then published for the first time. Perhaps the difficulty may be obviated by the supposition that Owen intended to publish it immediately, and refers to it in this work by anticipation.] Wherefore, a communication of spiritual gifts, peculiarly enabling men unto the work of the ministry, antecedent unto their solemn separation unto the office, in some good measure, is absolutely necessary unto the due continuance of the office and its work. See Eph. iv. 7, 11–15. To suppose that the Lord Christ doth call and appoint men unto a certain office and work in his church, secluding all others from any interest in the one or other, and yet not endow them with peculiar gifts and abilities for the discharge of that office and work, is to ascribe that unto him which is every way unbecoming his wisdom and grace, with his love unto the church. But when men look on all church-order as a life-less machine, to be acted, moved, and disposed by external rules, laws, canons, and orders, without respect unto the actings of the Spirit of Christ going before in the rule of his word, to enliven every part of it, the true disciples of Christ will receive no advantage thereby.
3dly. It is of the same importance that persons so called do take heed unto their ministry that they fulfil it, — that they give themselves unto the word and prayer, that they labour continually in the word and doctrine, and all those other duties which in the Scripture are prescribed unto them; and this, not only as unto the matter of them, but as unto the manner of their performance, — with zeal, love, 338compassion, and diligence. Where there is a great defect in any of these things, on what pretence soever it be; where men esteem themselves exempted from this work, or not obliged unto it; when they suppose that they may discharge their office at a cheaper rate, and with less trouble as unto their present interest, by such ways as I shall not here express, — no man is, no man can be, obliged to confine his church-communion unto such a ministry.
4thly. It is required that they be examples unto the flock, in the expression of the nature and power of the doctrine which they preach, in their conversation, especially in zeal, humility, self-denial, and readiness for the cross.
Where these things are not, there is such a defect in the fundamentals of church-practice, as unto the ministry of it, that no man who takes care of his own edification can join himself unto a church labouring under it; for ministers and churches are nothing but institute, means of the conversion of sinners and the edification of believers. And when any of them, through their own default, cease so to be, there is no obligation unto any man to join or continue in their communion, nor do they contract any guilt in a peaceable departure from them, but discharge their duty. That this be done peaceably, without strife or contention, without judging of others, as unto their interest in Christ and eternal salvation, the law of moral obedience doth require; that it be done with love, and compassion, and prayer towards and for them who are left, is the peculiar direction of that moral duty by the gospel. Such a practice at present would fall under severe charges and accusations, as also brutish penalties, in some places. But when all church-craft shall be defeated, and the uses that are made of its imaginary authority be discarded, there will be little occasion of this practice, and none at all of offence.
[2.] Again; there are things fundamental unto church practice and order in the church itself, which, where they are neglected, no man ought of choice to join himself unto that church, seeing he cannot do without the prejudice of his edification, the furtherance whereof he ought to design in that duty. And these are, —
1st. That the discipline of Christ be duly exercised in it according unto his mind, and by the rules of his prescription. There never was any sect, order, or society of men in the world, designed for the preservation and promotion of virtue and things praiseworthy, but they had rules of discipline proper unto the ends of their design, to be observed in and by all that belong unto them. Where the erection of such societies is continued in the world, as it is much in the Papacy, both their constitution and their conversation depend on the especial rules of discipline which they have framed unto themselves. 339And this is done by them in great variety; for being ignorant of the discipline of the gospel, and so esteeming it insufficient unto their design, they have made no end of coining rules unto themselves. To suppose that our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his church-state, according to ms infinite wisdom, hath erected the most perfect society for the most perfect ends of religion, of obedience towards God, of love and usefulness among ourselves, hath not appointed a discipline, and given rules concerning its administration, for the preservation of that society and the attaining of those ends, is highly injurious unto his honour and glory.
Where, therefore, there is a church, or any society that pretends so to be, wherein there is an utter neglect of this discipline of Christ, or the establishment of another not administered by the laws and rules that he hath prescribed, no disciple of Christ can be obliged to join unto or to continue in the total, sole communion of such a church. And whereas there are two parts of this discipline of Christ, — that which is private, among the members of the church, for the exercise and preservation of love; and that which is public, in and by the authority of the rulers of the church, for the preservation of purity and order, — a neglect in either of them cloth much impeach the fundamental constitution of a church as unto its practice.
2dly. There are sundry other things which belong unto this discipline in general, which are of great consideration in the discharge of the duty we inquire into. Among them are, — (1st.) That constant difference be put between the good and the bad in all church administrations; (2dly) That persons openly or flagitiously wicked be not admitted into the society of the church, or a participation of its privileges; (3dly.) That holiness, love, and usefulness be openly avowed as the design and interest of the church. But they are all so comprised in the general head of discipline as that I shall not in particular insist upon them.
From what hath been thus declared, it will appear, on the other hand, what church it is that a disciple of Christ, who takes due care of his own edification and salvation, ought in duty to join himself unto in complete communion. To answer this inquiry is the end of all those discourses and controversies which have been about the notes of the true church. I shall briefly determine concerning it, according to the principles before evinced:—
(1.) It must be such a church as wherein all the fundamental truths of the gospel are believed, owned, and professed, without controversy, and those not borne withal by whom they are denied or opposed. Without this a church is not the pillar and ground of truth, it doth not hold the Head, it is not built on the foundation of the prophets and apostles. Neither is it sufficient that those things are generally 340professed, or not denied. A church that is filled with wranglings and contentions about fundamental or important truths of the gospel is not of choice to be joined unto; for these things subvert the souls of men, and greatly impede their edification. And although, both among distinct churches and among the members of the same church, mutual forbearance be to be exercised, with respect unto a variety in apprehensions in some doctrines of lesser moment, yet the incursion that hath been made into sundry protestant churches, in the last and present age, of novel doctrines and opinions, with differences, divisions, and endless disputes which have ensued thereon, have rendered it very difficult to determine how to engage in complete communion with them; for I do not judge that any man is or can be obliged unto constant, total communion with any church, or to give up himself absolutely unto the conduct thereof, wherein there are incurable dissensions about important doctrines of the gospel. And if any church shall publicly avow, countenance, or approve of doctrines contrary unto those which were the foundation of its first communion, the members of it are at liberty to refrain the communion of it, and to provide otherwise for their own edification.
(2.) It must be such a church as wherein the divine worship instituted or approved by Christ himself is diligently observed, without any addition made thereunto. In the observance of this worship, as unto all external, occasional incidences and circumstances of the acts wherein it doth consist, it is left unto the prudence of the church itself, according to the light of nature and general rules of Scripture; and it must be so, unless we shall suppose that the Lord Jesus Christ, by making men his disciples, doth unmake them from being rational creatures, or refuseth the exercise of the rational faculties of our souls in his service. But this is so remote from truth, that, on the contrary, he gives them an improvement for this very end, that we may know how to deport ourselves aright in the observance of his commands, as unto the outward discharge of them in his worship and the circumstances of it; and this he doth by that gift of spiritual wisdom whereof we shall treat afterward.
But if men, if churches, will make additions in or unto the rites of religious worship, unto what is appointed by Christ himself, and require their observance in their communion, on the force and efficacy of their being so by them appointed, no disciple of Christ is or can be obliged, by virtue of any divine institution or command, to join in total, absolute communion with any such church. He may be induced, on various considerations, to judge that something of that nature at some season may not be evil and sinful unto him, which, therefore, he will bear with or comply withal; yet he is not, he cannot be obliged, by virtue of any divine rule or command, to join 341himself with or continue in the communion of such a church. If any shall suppose that hereby too much liberty is granted unto believers in the choice of their communion, and shall thereon make severe declamations about the inconveniencies and evils which will ensue, I desire they would remember the principle I proceed upon; which is, that churches are not such sacred machines as some suppose, erected and acted for the outward interest and advantage of any sort of men, but only means of the edification, of believers, which they are bound to make use of, in obedience unto the commands of Christ, and no otherwise. Whereas, therefore, the disciples of Christ have not only a divine warranty justifying them in the doing of it, but an express command, making it their indispensable duty to join in the celebration of all that religious worship which the Lord Christ, the only lawgiver of the church, and who was faithful both in and over the house of God as the Son, hath instituted and commanded, but have no such warranty or command for any thing else, it is their duty to stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ has made them free. And if by the same breath, in the same rule, law, or canon, they are commanded and obliged to observe in the worship of God what the Lord Christ hath appointed and what he hath not appointed, both on the same grounds, — namely, the authority of the church, — and on the same penalties for their omission, no man can be divinely obliged to embrace the communion of any church on such terms.
(3.) It is required that the ministry of a church so to be joined with is not defective in any of those things which, according to the rule of the gospel, are fundamental thereunto. What these are hath been declared. And because edification, which is the end of church-communion, doth so eminently depend on the ministry of the church, there is not any thing which we ought to have a more diligent consideration of in the joining of ourselves unto any such communion. And where the ministry of any church, be the church of what sort or size it will, is incurably ignorant or negligent, or, through a defect in gifts, grace, conscientious attendance unto their duty, is insufficient unto the due edification of the souls of them that believe, no man can account himself obliged unto the communion of the church but he that can be satisfied with a shadow and the names of things for the substance and reality of them.
If, therefore, it be granted, as I think it is, that edification is the principal end of all church-communion, it is not intelligible how a man should be obliged unto that communion, and that alone, wherein due edification cannot be obtained. Wherefore, a ministry enabled by spiritual gifts, and engaged by sense of duty, to labour constantly in the use of all means appointed by Christ for the edification of 342the church, or increase of his mystical body, is required in such a church as a believer may conscientiously join himself unto; and where it is otherwise, let men cry out “schism” and “faction” whilst they please, Jesus Christ will acquit his disciples in the exercise of their liberty, and accept them in the discharge of their duty.
If it he said, that if all men be thus allowed to judge of what is best for their own edification, and to act according unto the judgment which they make, they will be continually parting from one church unto another, until all things are filled with disturbance and confusion, I say, —
[1.] That the contrary assertion, — namely, that men are not allowed to judge what is meet and best for their own edification, or not to act according to the judgment they make herein, — may possibly keep up some churches, but is the ready way to destroy all religion.
[2.] That many of those by whom this liberty is denied unto professing Christians yet do indeed take it for granted that they have such a liberty, and that it is their duty to make use of it. For what are all the contests between the church of Rome and the church of England, so far as Christians that are not churchmen are concerned in them? Is it not, in whether of the churches edification may be best obtained? If this be not the ball between us, I know not what is. Now, herein do not all the writers and preachers of both parties give t heir reasons and arguments unto the people why edification is better to be had in the one church than in the other? And do they not require of them to form a judgment upon those reasons and arguments, and to act accordingly? If they do not, they do but make a flourish, and act a part, like players on a stage, without any determinate design.
[3.] All Christians actually do so. They do judge for themselves unless they are brutish; they do act according unto that judgment, unless they are hardened in sin; and therefore who do not so are not to be esteemed disciples of Christ. To suppose that in all things of spiritual and eternal concernment men are not determined and acted every one by his own judgment, is an imagination of men who think but little of what they are, or do, or say, or write. Even those who shut their eyes against the light and follow in the herd, resolving not to inquire into any of these things, do it because they judge it is best for them so to do.
[4.] It is commonly acknowledged by Protestants that private Christians have a judgment of discretion in things of religion. The term was invented to grant them some liberty of judgment, in opposition unto the blind obedience required by the church of Rome; but withal to put a restraint upon it, and a distinction of some superior judgment, it may be in the church or others. But if by discretion 343they mean the best of men’s understanding, knowledge, wisdom, and prudence, in and about the things wherein it is exercised, I should be glad to be informed what other judgment than this of discretion, in and about the things of religion, this, or that, or any church in the world, can have or exercise. But to allow men a judgment of discretion, and not to grant it their duty to act according unto that judgment, is to oblige them to be fools, and to act not discreetly, at least not according unto their own discretion.
(4.) The same is to be spoken of gospel discipline, without which neither can the duties of church-societies be observed nor the ends of them attained. The neglect, the loss, the abuse hereof, is that which hath ruined the glory of Christian religion in the world, and brought the whole profession of it into confusion. Hereon have the fervency and sincerity of true, evangelical, mutual love been abated, yea utterly lost; for that love which Jesus Christ requireth among his disciples is such as never was in the world before amongst men, nor can be in the world but on the principles of the gospel, and faith therein. Therefore it is called his “new commandment.” The continuation of it amongst the generality of Christians is but vainly pretended; little or nothing of the reality of it in its due exercise is found. And this hath ensued on the neglect of evangelical discipline in churches, or the turning of it into a worldly domination; for one principal end of it is the preservation, guidance, and acting of this love. That mutual watch over one another that ought to be in all the members of the church, the principal evidence and fruit of love without dissimulation, is also lost hereby. Most men are rather ready to say, in the spirit and words of Cain, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” than to attend unto the command of the apostle, “Exhort one another daily, lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin;” or comply with the command of our Saviour, “If thy brother offend thee, tell him of it between him and thee.” By this means likewise is the purity of communion lost, and those received as principal members of churches who, by all the rules of primitive discipline, ought to be cast out of them. Wherefore this also is to be considered in the choice we are to make of what churches we will join ourselves unto, as unto constant, complete communion, and in whose communion we will abide; for these things are matters of choice, and consist in voluntary, free acts of obedience. With those unto whom they are not so, who would on the one hand have them to be things that men may be compelled unto, and ought so to be, or, on the other, that follow no other guidance in them but outward circumstances, from the times and places where they are born and inhabit, I will have no contest. It follows from hence, also, that where there are many churches wherein these things are found, 344whereon we may lawfully, and ought in duty, to join with some of them in particular, every one is obliged to join himself unto such a church as whose principles and practices are most suited unto his edification.
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