Baptist History Homepage

Circular Letter
Northampton Baptist Association, 1799.

By Andrew Fuller

     WHEN the apostles, by the preaching of the word, had gathered in any place a sufficient number of individuals to the faith of Christ, it was their uniform practice, for the further promotion of his kingdom in that place, to proceed to the forming of them into a religious society, or Christian church. Being thus associated, in the name of Christ, Divine worship was carried on, Christian ordinances observed, holy discipline maintained, and the word of life, as the light by the golden candlesticks, exhibited. Amongst them our Lord Jesus Christ, as the High Priest of our profession, is represented as walking; observing the good, and applauding it; pointing out the evil, and censuring it. and holding up life and immortality to those that should overcome the temptations of the present state.

     Let us suppose him to walk amongst our churches, and to address us in the manner he addressed the seven churches in Asia. We trust he would find some things to approve; but we are also apprehensive he would find many things to censure. Let us, brethren, look narrowly into the discipline of the primitive churches, and compare our own with it.

     By discipline we do not mean to include the whole of the order of a Christian church. We have already touched on these subjects in the course of our annual address to you. The particular object to which we shall, at this time, request your attention, is that part of church government which consists in A MUTUAL WATCH OVER ONE ANOTHER, AND THE CONDUCT WE ARE DIRECTED TO PURSUE IN CASES OF DISORDER. A great part of our duty consists in cultivating what is lovely, but this is not the whole of it; we must prune as well as plant, if we would bear much fruit, and be Christ's disciples. One of the things applauded in the church of Ephesus was, that they could not bear them that were evil.

     Yet we are not to suppose from hence that no irregularity or imperfection whatever is an object of forbearance. If uniformity be required in such a degree as that every difference in judgment or practice shall occasion a separation, the churches may be always dividing into parties, which we are persuaded was never encouraged by the apostles of our Lord, and cannot be justified in trivial or ordinary cases. A contrary practice is expressly taught us in the Epistle to the Romans (chapter xiv.); and the cases in which it is to be exercised are there pointed out. An object of forbearance, however, must be one that may exist without being an occasion of dispute and wrangling in the church; it must "not be to doubtful disputations," verse 1. It must also respect things which do not enter into the essence of God's kingdom, the leading principles of which are "righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost," verse 16, 17. That which does not subvert the gospel of the kingdom, nor set aside the authority of the King, though it be an imperfection, is yet to be borne with. Finally, it must be something which does not "destroy the work of God," or which is not inconsistent with the progress of vital religion in the church, or in one's own soul, verse 20. In all such cases we are not to judge one another, but every man's conscience is to be his judge, verse 23.

     In attending to those things which are the proper objects of discipline, our first concern should be to see that all our measures are aimed at the good of the party, and the honour of God. Both these ends are pointed out in the case of the Corinthian offender. All was to be done "that his spirit might be saved in the day of the Lord," and to clear themselves as a church from being partakers of his sin. If these ends be kept in view, they will preserve us from much error; particularly from the two great evils into which churches are in danger of falling - false lenity, and unchristian severity. There is often a party found in a community, who, under the name of tenderness, are for neglecting all wholesome discipline; or, if this cannot be accomplished, for delaying it to the utmost. Such persons are commonly the advocates for disorderly walkers, especially if they be their particular friends or relations. Their language is, "He that is without sin, let him cast the first stone." My brother hath faIlen to-day, and I may fall to-morrow. This spirit, though it exists only in individuals, provided they be persons of any weight or influence, is frequently kuown to impede the due execution of the laws of Christ; and if it pervade the community, it will soon reduce it to the lowest state of degeneracy. Such for a time was the spirit of the Corinthians; but when brought to a proper sense of things, "what carefulness it wrought in them, yea, what clearing of themselves, yea, what indignation, yea, what fear, yea, what vehement desire, yea, what zeal, yea, what revenge!" - In opposing the extreme of false tenderness, others are in danger of falling into unfeeling severity. This spirit will make the worst of every thing, and lead men to convert the censures of the church into weapons of private revenge. Persons of this description know not of what manner of spirit they are. They lose sight of the good of the offender. It is not love that operates in them; for love worketh no evil. The true medium between these extremes is a union of mercy and truth. Genuine mercy is combined with faithfulness, and genuine faithfulness with mercy; and this is the only spirit that is likely to "purge iniquity," Proverbs xvi. 6. Conuivance will produce indifference; and undue severity will arm the offender with prejudice, and so harden him in his sin: but the love of God and of our brother's soul is adapted to answer every good end. If we love God, like Levi, we shall know no man after the flesh, nor acknowledge our nearest kindred; but shall observe his word, and keep his covenant. And if we love the soul of our brother, we shall say, He is fallen to-day, and I will reprove him for his good: I may fall to-morrow, and then let him deal the same with me. Love is the grand secret of church discipline, and will do more than all other things put together towards insuring success.

     In the exercise of discipline it is necessary to distinguish between faults which are the consequence of sudden temptation, and such as are the result of premeditation and habit. The former require a compassionate treatment, the latter a greater portion of severity. The sin of Peter in denying his Lord was great, and, if noticed by the enemies of Christ, might bring great reproach upon his cause; yet, compared with the sin of Solomon, it was little. He first gave way to licentiousness, then to idolatry, and on finding that God, as a punishment for his sin, had given ten tribes to Jeroboam, he sought to kill him. Cases like this are imminently dangerous, and require a prompt and decided treatment, like that which we should use towards a child fallen into the fire; in which a moment's delay might be fatal, and in which hesitating tenderness would be the height of cruelty. "Of some have compassion, making a difterence: others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh," Jude 22, 23. See also Galatians vi.1.

     In all our admonitions regard should be had to the age and character of the party. An elder, as well as other men, may be in a fault, and a fault that may require to be noticed; but let him be told of it in a tender and respectful manner. While you expostulate with younger men on a footing of equality, pay a deference to age and office. "Rebuke not an elder, but entreat him as a father, and the younger men as brethren," 1 Timothy v. 1.

     In the due execution of Christian discipline there are many things to be done by the members of churches individually; and it is upon the proper discharge of these duties that much of the peace and purity of a church depends. If we be faithful to one another, there will be but few occasions for public censure. Various improprieties of conduct, neglects of duty, and declensions in the power of godliness, are the proper objects of pastoral admonition. It is one essential branch of this office to "rebuke, and exhort with all long-suffering," 2 Timothy iv. 2. Nor is this work confined to pastors; Christians are directed to "admonish one another," Romans xv. 14. Indeed there are things which a wise and affectionate people will be concerned to take upon themselves, lest a prejudice should be contracted against the ministry, which may prevent its good effects. This is peculiarly necessary in the settling of differences in which whole families may be interested, and in which it is extremely difficult to avoid the suspicion of partiality.

     In all cases of personal offence the rule laid down by our Lord in the eighteenth chapter of Matthew ought to be attended to; and no such offence ought to be admitted before a church till the precept of Christ has been first complied with by the party or parties concerned.

     In many cases where faults are not committed immediately against us, but which are unknown except to a few individuals, love will lead us to endeavour to reclaim the party, if possible, without any further exposure. A just man will not be willing unnecessarily to make his brother a public example. The Scriptures give peculiar encouragement to these personal and private attempts. "If any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him, let him know that he who converteth a sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and hide a multitude of sins," James v. 19, 20.

     In cases of evil report, where things are said of a brother in our hearing which if true must affect his character, and the purity of the church, it cannot be right to go on to report it. Love will not lead to this. Many reports we know are unfounded; or, if true in the main, they may have been aggravated; or there may be circumstances attending the case which, if fully understood, would make things appear very different from the manner in which they have been represented. Now it is almost impossible that anyone but the party himself should be acquainted with all these circumstances, or able to give a full account of them. No time therefore should be lost ere we inquire at the hand of our brother, or if on any consideration we feel that to be unsuitable, it would be proper to apply to an officer of the church, who may conduct it with greater propriety.

     There are also cases of a still more public nature, in which much of the peace and happiness of a church depends upon the conduct of its members in their individual capacity. The charge given by the apostle to the Romans, (chapter xvi. 17, 18,) though applicable to a church, yet seems to be rather addressed to the individuals who compose it: - "Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned, and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple." The characters to be avoided appear to be persons whose object it is to set up a party in the church, of which they may be the heads or leaders - a kind of religious demagogues. Such men are found, at one time or other, in most societies; and in some cases the peace of the churches has been invaded by strangers, who are not of their own community. Let the "brethren" have their eye upon such men. "Mark them." Trace their conduct, and you will soon discover their motives. Stand aloof from them, and " avoid" striking in with their dividing measures. In case of their being members, the church collectively considered ought, no doubt, to put away from amongst them such wicked persons; but as every oollective body is composed of individuals, if those individuals suffer themselves to be drawn away, the church is necessarily thrown into confusion, and rendered incapable of a prompt, unanimous, and decided conduct. Let members of churches therefore beware how they listen to the insinuations of those who would entice them to join their party. Men of this stamp are described by the apostle, and therefore may be known, particularly by three things: - First, By their doctrine: it is contrary to that which has been learned of Christ. Secondly, By their selfish pursuits: "they serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own bellies." Thirdly, By their insinuating whining pretences of affectionate regard towards their partisans: "by good words and fair speeches they deceive the hearts of the simple."

     To this may be added, there are duties incumbent on individuals in their behaviour towards persons who lie under the censure of the church. If they still continue in a state of impenitence, persist in their sin, or be unreconciled to the church's proceedings with them, it is of the utmost consequence that every member should act a uniform part towards them. We may, it is true, continue our ordinary and necessary intercourse with them as men, in the concerns of this life; but there must be no familiarity, no social interchange, no visitings to them nor receiving visits from them, nothing, in short, that is expressive of connivance at their conduct. "If any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner, we must not keep company with such a one, no, not to eat," 1 Corinthians v. 11. If individual members act contrary to this rule, and carry it freely towards an offender, as if nothing had taken place, it will render the censure of the church of none effect. Those persons also who behave in this manner will be considered by the party as his friends, and others who stand aloof as his enemies, or at least as being unreasonably severe; which will work confusion, and render void the best and most wholesome discipline. We must act in concert, or we may as well do nothing. Members who violate this rule are partakers of other men's sins, and deserve the rebukes of the church for counteracting its measures.

     With respect to those things which fall under the cognizance of a church in its collective capacity, we earnestly recommend, in general, that every thing be done not only with a view to the honour of God and the good of the party, as before observed, but with a special regard to the revealed will of Christ. That some kind of order be preserved in every community is necessary to its existence. Decency, reputation, and even worldly policy, will induce us to take some notice of gross immoralities; but this is not Christian discipline, nor will it be productive of its salutary effects. In the choice of officers few, if any, churches would elect a profligate; but if opulence be allowed to supply the place of spirituality, or ambitious or litigious characters be preferred on the principle of expediency, as a means of keeping them in better humour, is it not carnal? So in matters of discipline, few churches would suffer a grossly immoral or litigious character to continue amongst them unnoticed; but if, instead of a calm, impartial, and decided procedure, we enter into pusillanimous compromises with the offender, consenting that he should withdraw of his own accord - if the crimes of rich men be either entirely overlooked or but slightly touched, lest the cause should suffer from their being offended - or if the misconduct of poor men be disregarded on the ground of their being persons of little or no account - "are we not carnal, and walk as men?" Brethren, are there any such things amongst us? Search and consider. Such things ought not to be. The private withdrawlment of an individual, if it be without good reasons, may justify a church in admonishing him, and, if he cannot be reclaimed, in excluding him; but it cannot itself dissolve the relation. Till such exclusion has taken place he is a member, and his conduct affects their repluation as much as that of any other member. With regard to a neglect of discipline lest it should injure the cause, what cause must that be which requires to be thus supported? Be it our concern to obey the laws of Christ, and leave him to support his own cause. If it sink by a fulfilment of his commandments, let it sink. He will not censure us for not supporting the ark with unhallowed hands. And if it be criminal to fear the rich, it cannot be less so to despise the poor. Let brotherly love abound towards both. Do all things without partiality and without hypocrisy.

     We cannot enumerate all the particular cases which fall under the cognizance of a Christian church, but shall mention a few which are recorded in the Scriptures for our imitation.

     A DEPARTURE FROM THE FAITH OF THE GOSPEL, OR ANY OF ITS LEADING DOCTRINES, is an object of Christian discipline. "I would they were even cut off that trouble you." - "I have a few things against thee, because thou hast them who hold the doctrine of Balaam - so hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate." - "A man that is an heretic, after the first and second admonition, reject, knowing that he that is such is subverted and sinneth, being condemned of himself."

     It is worthy of notice, that the only passage in the New Testament wherein heresy is introduced as an object of discipline makes no mention of any thing as composing it but what relates to the principles of the party. It may be supposed that those who were accounted heretics by the apostles were as impure in their lives as they were antichristian in their doctrine, and that they were commonly disturbers of the peace and unity of the churches; but however this might be, neither of these evils is alleged as the ground for which the heretic was to be rejected. All that is mentioned is this: He is "subverted and sinneth, being condemned of himself."

     He is "subverted;" that is, his professed faith in the gospel is in effect overturned, or rendered void; consequently he requires to be treated as an unbeliever. He is "condemned of himself;" that is, the gospel being a consistent whole, he that rejects some of its leading principles, while he professes to retain others, is certain to fall into self-contradiction; which if clearly pointed out in "a first and second admonition," he will be compelled, if he persist, obstinately to shut his eyes against the light, and thus sin against the dictates of his own conscience.

     It has been asked, by persons who disapprove of all church proceedings on account of difference in religious principles, who is to judge what is heresy? We answer, those who are to judge what is immorality in dealing with loose characters. To suppose it impossible to judge what heresy is, or to deny that the power of so deciding rests in a Christian church, is to charge the apostolic precept with impertinence. It is true the judgment of a church may be erroneous, as well as that of an individual; and it becomes them in their decisions to consider that they will all be revised at the great day; but the same may be said of all human judgment, civil or judicial, to which no one is so void of reason as on this account to object.

     It has been further objected, that censuring a person on account of his religious sentiments invades the right of private judgment, is inconsistent with the liberty of the gospel, and contrary to the leading principles on which protestants have separated from the Church of Rome, and Protestant Dissenters from the Church of England. The right of private judgment, while we claim no connexion with others, is an undoubted right. We may be Christians, infidels, or atheists, and none but God has any control over us; but if we desire the friendship and esteem of good men notwithstanding, or claim admission to a Christian church, or should we be in it already, and claim to continue our situation, surely they would not be obliged to comply. If so, our right of private judgment must interfere with that of others whose judgment tells them that there can be no fellowship between light and darkness, or communion between him that believeth and an infidel. If the liberty of the gospel consist in a right of fellowship with Christian churches whatever be our principles, it will follow not only that unbelievers may claim visible communion with believers, but that no exclusions for immorality can be justified, provided the party insists that his sentiments are in harmony with his practice. There is a great variety of opinion as to what is morality, as well as to what is truth. One loose character believes in polygamy, another in concubinage, and a third can see no harm in fornication, nor even in adultery, provided it be undiscovered.* If the Churches of Rome and England had done nothing more than exclude from their society characters whom they considered as deviating from the first principles of the gospel, without subjecting them to civil penalties or disabilities, however we might have disputed the truth of their doctrine, we could not have justly objected to their discipline. And on the other hand, we should suppose that the separation of protestants from the one, and of Protestant Dissenters from the other, was for the sake of enjoying a purer church state, wherein they might act up to the laws of Zion's King; and not that they might live as though there were no King in Israel, which is the case where every man does that which is right in his own eyes.

     In CASES OF NOTORIOUS AND COMPLICATED WICKEDNESS it appears that in the primitive churches immediate exclusion was the consequence. In the case of the incestuous Corinthian, there are no directions given for his being admonished, and excluded only in case of his being incorrigibly impenitent. The apostle determined what should be done - "In the name of the Lord Jesus, when ye are gathered together, to deliver such a one unto Satan." We cannot but consider it as an error in the discipline of some churches, where persons have been detected of gross and aggravated wickedness, that their exclusion has been suspended, and in many cases omitted, on the ground of their professed repentance. While the evil was a secret, it was persisted in, but, when exposed by a public detection, then repentance is brought forward, as it were, in arrest of judgment. But can that repentance be genuine that is pleaded for the purpose of warding off the censures of a Christian church? We are persuaded it cannot. The eye of a true penitent will be fixed upon the greatness of his sin, and he will be the last to discern or talk of his repentance for it. So far from pleading it in order to evade censure, he will censure himself, and desire nothing more than that testimony may be borne against his conduct for tbe honour of Christ.

     But, allowing that repentance in such cases is sincere, still it is not of such account as to set aside the necessity of exclusion. The end to be answered by this measure is not merely the good of the party, but the clearing of a Christian church from the very appearance of conniving at immorality, and which cannot be accomplished by repentance only. Though Miriam might be truly sorry for her sin in having spoken against Moses, and though she might be healed of her leprosy; yet "the Lord said unto Moses, If her father had but spit on her face, should she not be ashamed seven days? Let her be shut out from the camp seven days; and after that let her be received in again." Numbers xii.14.

We do not suppose, however, that every notorious fault requires immediate exclusion. The general rule given is that NOTORIOUS EVILS SHOULD MEET WITH A PUBLIC REBUKE. "Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear," 1 Timothy v. 20. But this proceeding does not appear to amount to exclusion; it is rather of the nature of a censure or reprimand, accompanying an admonition. To us it appears that the circumstances attending a sin ought to determine whether it require immediate exclusion or not. If these be highly aggravating - if there appear to have been pre-meditation, intention, and perseverance in the crime - "put away from amongst yourselves that wicked person;" but if circumstances extenuate rather than heighten the evil, solemn admonition, accompanied with rebuke, ought to suffice, and no exclusion to follow but in case of incorrigible impenitence.

     There are also faults which do not come under the denomination of notorious sins, wherein directious are given for recovering the offenders WITHOUT ANY MENTION BEING MADE OF EXCLUSION, EITHER IMMEDIATE OR ULTIMATE. There is perhaps in all the churches a description of men whose characters are far from being uniformly circumspect, and yet not sufficiently irregular to warrant their being separated from communion. They are disorderly walkers; busybodies in other men's matters, while negligent of their own; in a word, unamiable characters. Now those that are such we are directed to exhort, and charge that they conduct themselves as becometh Christians. If after this they continue disorderly, observe a degree of distance in your conduct towards them; withdraw your intimacy; let them feel the frowns of their brethren: yet be not wholly reserved, but occasionally explain to them the reasons of your conduct, affectionately admonishing them at the same time to repentance and amendment of life. "Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which ye received of us. - For we hear that there are some who walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies. Now them that are such we command, and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work and eat their own bread. And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother." 2 Thessalonians iii. 6-15. If churches were to consult only their own reputation, they would often discard such persons at an early period; but where there is reasou to hope that the heart is right in the main, great forbearance must be exercised, and long perseverance in endeavouring to recover. How many imperfections were discovered in the conduct of the twelve apostles, while their Lord was with them, and what an example of forbearance has he left us! One character reclaimed is of greater account, and more to the honour of a Christian church, than many discarded.

     Finally, A watchful eye upon the state of the church, and of particular members, with a seasonable interposition, may do more towards the preservation of good order than all other things put together. Discourage whisperings, backbitings, and jealousies. Frown on talebearers, and give no ear to their tales. Nip contentions in the bud. Adjust differences in civil matters amongst yourselves. Bring together at an early period those in whom misconception and distrust have begun to operate, ere ill opinion ripen into settled dislike. By a frank and timely explanation, in the presence of a common friend, that may be healed in an hour, which, if permitted to proceed, a series of years cannot eradicate. Be affectionately free with one another. Give tender and faithful hints where it appears to you that one of your brethren is in danger of being drawn aside from the principles or spirit of the gospel. Let all be given, from their first entering into connexion with you, to expect them. If anyone take offence at such treatment, give him to understand that he who cannot endure a caution, or a reproof, is unfit for Christian society, and is in the utmost danger of falling into mischief.

     Brethren, consider what we say, and the Lord give you understanding in all things! The free circulation of the blood, and the proper discharge of all the animal functions, are not more necessary to the health of the body, than good discipline is to the prosperity of a community.

     If it were duly considered how much the general interests of religion, and even the salvation of men, may be affected by the purity and harmony of Christian churches, we should tremble at the thought of their being interrupted by us. The planting of a church in a neighhourhood, where the gospel is preached, and the ordinances of Christ administered in their purity, is a great blessing. It is a temple reared for God, in which he deigns to record his name, to meet with his humble worshippers, and to bless them. We have seen churches of this description, in the midst of a career of spiritual prosperity, edifying one another in love, and gathering souls to the Redeemer's standard, all in a little time blasted and ruined by some unhappy event that has thrown them into disorder. One of the members, it may be, has acted unworthily - he is reproved - his relations or particular acquaintances take on his side - discipline is interrupted - the church is divided into parties - hard things are said on both sides - the bond of love is broken - tender minds are grieved, and retire - worship is but thinly attended, and the enjoyment of it is vanished - God's friends mourn in secret, and his enemies triumph, saying, "Aha! aha! so would we have it!" O brethren, it is a serious thing to occasion the ruin of a church of Christ! If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy!" Dearly beloved, farewell. Grace and peace be with you.



* Such was the morality taught by Mr. Burne.


[From Joseph Belcher, editor, The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, Vol. III, 1845; rpt. 1988, pp. 331-338. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

British Baptist Index
Baptist History Homepage