Circular Letter - Church Discipline - written by John Ryland, Broadmead Baptist Church, Bristol, England

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The Circular Letter
From the Elders, Ministers and Messengers
Of the Several Baptist Churches Of the Western Association
Assembled at Shortwood, in the Parish of Horsley,
In Glocestershire, May 23d & 24th, 1804
Written by John Ryland

     Maintaining the important Doctrines of three equal Persons in the Godhead; eternal and personal Election; original Sin; particular Redemption; free Justification by the imputed Righteousness of Christ; efficacious Grace in Regeneration; the final Perseverance of true Saints; the Resurrection of the Dead; the future Judgment; the eternal Happiness of the Righteous, and the endless Misery of the Impenitent, with the congregational Order of the Churches, inviolably:

To the several Churches they represent, or from which they have received Letters.

      Grace be to you, and Peace from God the Father, and from Jesus Christ our Lord.

Dear Brethren,
      Considering the alarming state of our country, again engaged in an arduous war, and the threatening boasts of our national enemies, never had we greater reason to admire the divine goodness, in our preservation and protection, than in the present year. We would therefore, call upon you, with peculiar sensations of gratitude, to unite in blessing the name of our God, for permitting us to hold our annual assembly in peace. The tidings also, from many of the Churches, give us farther cause for thankfulness, that the Lord, even in these troublesome times, is building up the walls of Zion; though there are, in our connexion, some instances of declension and distress, which require us to mourn, and humble ourselves before Him, whose gracious influence can revive the things that are ready to die.

      It was requested, at our last Association, that the Subject of Church Discipline might particularly occupy our attention this year, and be discussed in our Circular Letter: and surely, Brethren, it is worthy of our most serious consideration.

      As we have become united in Christian Fellowship, upon the plan that appears to us most Scriptural; and which, by giving to every member a degree of influence, best secures the opportunity of reforming, in any of our Societies, whatever is amiss or defective; so we shall be justly liable to severe censure, if we do not improve these advantages, to the honor of God and our own benefit.

      None of you were entered among the Members of our Churches, by the act of others; nor were you compelled to join us, by human authority; but each individual professed to give himself up voluntarily to God and his people: you had not only arrived at years of discretion, but solemnly avowed that you were constrained, by the love of Christ, to say to your Brethren, We will go with you, for we perceive that God is with you.

      It cannot be required, in addressing you, that we should enter into a train of Arguments, to prove the Congregational Order of Churches to be scriptural; if that was not your opinion, you did wrong in joining us; and if such a persuasion was the ground of your preferring our Denomination, you are inconsistent and inexcusable if you do not aim to make the scriptures your rule in every thing, and conform as closely as possible to the primitive pattern.

      There are Churches so constituted as that no power is left in the hands of the people; yea some, in which ordinary Ministers could do nothing to rectify acknowledged disorders. Hence public confessions of the want of godly Discipline have been annually repeated for ages, without a single effort being made for its restoration. Excellent men may sincerely regret these things; but, being bound, by the delusive idea of uniformity, to continue connected with so heterogeneous a body, they are tempted to extenuate and excuse evils, which they would perceive, acknowledge and redress, if they had but power to correct them.

      We, however, shall be more culpable than they, if having no obstacle to prevent our strictly complying with the directions of the divine word, but what arises from our own supineness and indifference to the honor of our blessed Lord, we should suffer his name to be dishonored, through our neglect of his laws. Though, as we cannot search the heart, we may expect to find some instances wherein we shall prove to have been mistaken, in our judgment of them that have applied for admission into our churches; yet it is our avowed principle to admit none but those, who, in a judgment of charity, have received the grace of God in truth. It was on a profession of repentance towards God, and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, that we were planted together in the likeness of Christ's death, and of his resurrection. Know ye not, brethren, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ, were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by Baptism into death; that like as Christ was raised up from the dead, by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. Let it be, therefore, the concern of every one, so to walk in Him, as to prove that your reception of him was cordial and entire: remembering that he who saith, he abideth in him ought himself so also to walk, even as He walked.

      Surely it would be better not to pretend to any visible separation from the world, than for us, while we profess to form our churches of them only who are called to be saints, and whose hearts are purified by faith, to tolerate a glaring inconsistency of conduct, and to be separate merely in name from those that are the servants of sin.

      May every one of you, beloved Brethren reflect, that he is called to constant circumspection; and, not satisfied with barely departing from open iniquity, be ambitious of positively adorning the doctrine of God our Savior, by bearing much of the fruits of righteousness. At the same time, let us also remember, that we are bound, in our collective capacity, to "consider one another, to provoke unto love and to good works;" impartially to admonish the unruly; to reprove before all, them that sin openly; and put out from among us such as shew themselves to be wicked persons; that the name of the Lord may not be blasphemed through their misconduct.

      Doubtless, if each individual were more under the influence of that holy love, which would lead him to watch over others, with unfeigned solicitude for their spiritual welfare, much sin might be prevented; and the church would be eased of a great deal of trouble. It ill becomes a Christian to adopt the language of Cain, that child of the wicked One, who said, "Am I my Brother's keeper?" Oh! that all professors of godliness were more averse to speak of a brother's fault to others, and more ready to mention it to the offender himself. There is much room to suspect the sincerity of those, who go about whispering hints, which they pretend they are very sorry to mention, concerning the imperfections of a fellow-member; while they have not the fortitude and faithfulness to go to the person himself, and endeavour to convince him of the impropriety of his conduct. Those laws, in the third book of Moses, are worthy of being considered as the laws of Christ: Thou shalt not go up and down as a tale-bearer among the people. Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart: thou shalt in any wise reprove thy neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him. None can be under stronger obligations, than they who are fellow-members of a christian Church, to apply to themselves that charge, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. - Would you be willing that your nearest neighbor should see the beginning of a fire, which would be likely to burn down your habitation, and yet neglect to give you timely warning? Surely an apprehension of danger to his own premises would unite with his regard to you, in preventing such negligence. Love thy neighbor as thyself, and fear sin more than any conflagration. - Would you be willing he should witness the pilfering of your property, by either a stranger or an unfaithful servant, without giving you the least intimation? Love thy neighbor as thyself; and consider every lust and every idol as the worst of thieves.

      We shall not need to transcribe the rule which our Lord has given, in Matt. xviii, 15-17, but must observe that this evidently relates, not to public dishonor brought on the cause of Christ, by sinful conduct already known to the world, but to more private offences, against an individual brother, who is here directed in what manner he should proceed, in attempting to convince the offender of his fault. Now though Christians cannot too strictly adhere to this direction, in all cases of such a description, yet it does not follow that the same mode of proceeding is prescribed, in cases of open scandal, which no more affect one individual than another. Herein it will often be right for the Church to take cognizance of the affair at once. * *

      But when the offence of a member is brought under the notice of the Church, it does not follow that such a person must be immediately excluded. If his fault be but little known, or does not bring immediate and open reproach on the cause of Christ, it may be sufficient at first seriously to admonish him, either by messengers deputed for that end; or by the pastor, in the presence of the church; or by letter signed in the name of the whole society. And if he be not at once convinced of the error of his way, such an admonition my be repeated, before the church proceed to separate him from their communion. These steps seem most requisite in cases of a more intricate nature, where the sin is not a once obvious to every man's conscience; and, the concurring judgment of the Church is needful to silence the partial voice of some disorderly affection or passion.

      But when the conduct of a professor has been notoriously criminal, and occasion given to the enemies of the Lord to blasphame, a speedy exclusion may be far more expedient, than a mere suspension from the table of the Lord. In the case of the incestuous Corinthian, we find no directions given, first to endeavour to bring him to repentance; but the church was directed at once to put him away from among them. 1 Cor. v. 13. And this mode of proceeding, in similiar circumstance, tends most to the honor of God, the comfort of the church, and the real good of the offender. Should God grant him thorough repentance, he may be afterwards restored, according to the directions given, in 2 Cor. ii. 6-11; and if that desirable event should not be evidently produced, the Church will be no longer embarassed or dishonored.

      Some immoralities are more easily proved, and some are more universally odious in the sight of the world, than others; but it ought to be remembered that the scriptures represent covetousness and extortion, railing and an unforgiving spirit, as equally sinful, (Eph. iv. 31, 32. v. 5, 6, Col. iii. 5, 6) and equally censurable, (1 Cor. v. 11) with drunkenness, fornication and idolatry. And it would tend exceedingly to the honor of our churches, if no one, who could be clearly convicted of habitually indulging these vices, were able to retain his connexion with them, uncensured and unreformed. If this duty be neglected, such characters will prove as great a curse to our societies, as Achan was to the camp of Israel.

      Nor is it merely on account of scandalous immoralities that persons ought to be separated from a Gospel Church. An avowed renunciation of evangelical principles, and especially an open opposition to the truth as it is in Jesus, is sufficient ground for exclusion. Prudent and humble Christians will not make a man an offender for a word; nor will they expect a perfect agreement in judgment, on every theological question, among a number of professors, who may yet give comfortable evidence that they hold the principle truths of revelation. But a denial of his Divinity, who bought the church with his own blood, is utterly inconsistent with remaining in fellowship with those who honor the Son as they honor the Father; and no transgression of the precepts of the second table can be considered as a just ground of exclusion, by those who would connive at the express disavowal of the whole decalogue, as a rule of conduct for Christians.

      To deny the right of a Church to take cognizance of the religious Sentiments of it's [sic] Members, would be to sacrifice the liberty of the Society to the licentiousness of the Individual; and to say, no body of Christians have any right to determine, that they will unite together with those only, who are nearly agreed in their religious sentiments. For persons to unite in celebrating the Lord's supper, while some of them view it as little more sacred than a feast in memory of King William the third, or any other celebrated benefactor to mankind; and others view it as a divine ordinance, wherein we commemorate a real sacrifice for sin, made by the incarnate Son of God, appears a preposterous and absurd connexion; for which it can scarcely be believed that any one would plead, unless he hoped secretly to spread opinions he was not at present willing to avow. Exclusion from a Congregational Church exposes no man to any civil penalties; and God forbid we should ever wish for the grossest mistakes in religion to be punished by fines, or imprisonment, or corporal severities. If we cannot defend our creed by the sword of the Spirit, let the most opposite principles prevail, sooner than the sword of the Magistrate should be called into our aid. But two cannot walk comfortably together except they be agreed; nor can a Christian Society flourish, where important truth is sacrificed to worldly policy, under the specious names of candor and liberality. They who think us chargeable with idolatry, for paying divine worship to Christ Jesus, would do wrong to hold communion with us; and we should be as inconfident in keeping them in fellowship with us, who disbelieve the Deity and Atonement of Christ.

      Nor is a rejection of the kingly office of Christ less reprehensible, than the refusal of embracing his mediation. It is possible that inferior motives may, for a time, prevent some from acting up to their licentious principles, who deny that Believers are under any other restraint, than the present influence of a selfish gratitude. But the idea that the Moral Law is no standard of duty is so destructive to all real religion; and is so inconsistent with the honor of divine grace in our pardon, and with a due value for the mortifying and sanctifying influences of the Holy Spirit; that no error ought to be more severely censured, by all who profess to love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity.

      Dearly beloved, we beseech you, for the Lord Jesus Christ's sake, and the love of the Spirit, that you would beware of those deceitful workers, who by promising you liberty from obedience, would bring you into bondage to corruption. Can you be so seduced as to conceive that any man can be a friend of Free Grace, who abhors the idea of Duty? Can that scheme tend to the honor of God our Savior, which so represents the unregenerate as fallen below all obligation, and the believer as raised above all obligation, that the former are no more to be blamed than flocks and stones, and the latter has no more cause to blush than an angel? On the Antinomian plan we see not what room is left for the exercise of repentance, faith or obedience. Of Repentance the scriptures speak much, but the deluded mortals who embrace a false gospel hate the very name. Free Grace is a term they may often use, but the scriptural idea of grace they discard; for nothing disgusts them more than an attempt to show that they might have been righteously condemned. The Grace of the Bible is that which bestows the highest good on those who really deserved the greatest evil; nor can grace shine forth with resplendent lustre in any man's Salvation, except on the supposition that Justice would have been conspicuous in his Condemnation. And as to the Mediator, our obligations to him must surely be proportioned to the burden of sin he sustained, when he gave himself a ransom for us. But certainly he suffered for no more sins, than those for which, had it not been for his kind interposition, we must ourselves have suffered. According to the standard of duty, must we form an estimate of our quantity of guilt; and answerable to the idea we entertain of our personal demerit, will be our sense of obligation to him who restored that which he took not away. How then must they who deny the spirituality of the divine Law, and its unalterable claim of obedience, lessen the need and the worth of the Atonement! Very narrow indeed, according to their opinion, was the extent of their duty before conversion; and consequently the sins they then committed were comparatively few and small: and since conversion they insinuate that duty and sin are both annihilated. For where there is no Law, there can be no transgression. Being without Law, they are without blame. They have reached sinless perfection the backward way. So much service as they are effectually inclined to do, they always perform; and more than this was not their duty. In what one instance then do they sin? For what act, or what omission of theirs could it have been needful that Christ should make atonement? Surely by such sentiments as these, his precious blood is trampled under foot. And as for the divine Spirit, there is no work these mistaken professors wish him to effect in their hearts, but what an unholy spirit could more consistently perform; viz. to whisper peace to them, let their frame or their conduct be what it may.

      We wish you to be on your guard against error, on the right hand and the left; but, where a man's heart appears right with God, may you labor to convince him of his mistake, in a spirit of meekness and love. But when a professor becomes deeply infected with opinions, that would overturn the very foundations of our hope, or destroy all practical godliness, it becomes necessary, in a firm and decided manner to bear testimony against such fatal mistakes, ere they proceed to infect others, and promote more ungodliness.

      Persons may also be justly excluded from a Christian Church, who are neither chargeable with gross immorality, nor with dangerous errors. If they neglect the ordinances of God's house altogether, or without cause withdraw themselves from the Church to which they had once given up their names, it is proper to notice their conduct; though the censure may vary in its terms, according to an impartial consideration of the character. Those who discover a lukewarm and backsliding spirit, should be faithfully and affectionately warned: and, if they cannot be reclaimed, should be excluded. Nor ought good people to be allowed to come into a Church and go out again at their own pleasure. If they have reasons for their withdrawment, let these be respectfully stated to the Church; and, though they may not appear fully satisfactory, yet it may be better to grant a member his dismission to another church, than to detain him against his inclination. Dismissions may be differently worded, as the case shall require; and, if the Act of Exclusion be committed to writing, that also may be so expressed, according to the circumstances of the person excluded, as to convey a lighter or a stronger censure. But as no man comes into our Churches, merely by his own vote, so should he not be left to dissolve the connection by his own act alone. For, at that rate, any man might elude all discipline, by withdrawing himself, as soon as the society was inclined to call him to account for his misconduct.

      It tends greatly to impede the due exercise of Church Government, when a number of nominal members are suffered to remain on the list, who neither fulfill any of the duties of members, nor partake of the ordinances of God's house, nor are called to any account for neglecting to fill up their places. If some, of pretty good moral character, are suffered to remain long in this state; who shall begin to call others to account, who may be but partial in their attendance, and more suspicious in their general deportment? The longer a due inspection of the communicants is neglected, the more difficult it becomes; and the church which has long connived at smaller irregularities, knows not how to animadvert upon those that are rather more heinous. Thus a Church, instead of representing a well cultivated garden, full of pleasant fruits, becomes like the field of the slothful, or the vineyard of the man void of understanding; lo, it is all grown over with thorns, nettles cover the face thereof, and the stone wall thereof is broken down.

      Sometimes, those who had given themselves up to our Churches may be removed, to a distance too great to admit of their being watched over by their brethren, or attending on their assemblies. To such persons, it is customary, for any society of the same denomination, either with or without a recommendation, to grant occasional communion. If a person, however, be not well known, it would be proper always to apply for the attestation of the pastor or church to which he belongs; and, if there be no prospect of a speedy return to his former residence, it would be well to apply for a Letter of Dismission. Some worthy characters, from an attachment to the people to whom they first united, are induced to object against removing their communion; but if these good people duly considered the union of the whole church, and reflected on the possibility of their example being abused by others; surely they would be willing to resign themselves to the disposal of providence, and become closely connected in fellowship, where they can impart and receive the most benefit. For some, we fear, may wish to remain mere transient communicants, that being at a distance from the church they first joined, and not in full communion with the other, they may be the less responsible to either. Our Societies, therefore, would do right to advise their own members, who have removed to a distance, to apply for a dismission to some neighbouring church; and to put those who have enjoyed occasional communion with themselves for a time, upon a similar application.

      The important Ends to be answered by a scriptural Discipline should engage the attention of us all to this subject. The Honor of God our Saviour is the chief object we should ever keep in view; as in all our conduct, so especially in our church concerns. The very existence of a Church, as a body of visible saints, professing separation from the world and peculiar devotedness to the Redeemer; if they are not careful to depart from all iniquity, must, instead of tending to his honor, tend to his dishonor. To profess a special union to Him and to each other, and yet not be united in love; to profess to be the salt of the earth, but to have no peculiar savor; to profess to be the lights of the world, and not to let our light so shine before men as to glorify our heavenly Father; must be worse than the total omission of any explicit profession. But without Discipline the Church cannot be kept pure. Therefore the Apostle urged this consideration so strongly on the church at Corinth. "Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out, therefore, the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. Therefore, let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth." -- By duly censuring the conduct of one professor, who has fallen into sin, others may be put upon their guard, and deter[r]ed from the like wickedness: and even the offended himself may, through the blessing of God upon his own appointment, be brought to conviction, humiliation and thorough repentance. But to answer these ends, churches should act with promptitude, firmness and unanimity.


(Note: There are eleven pages used for this Letter in the Associational Minutes. On the back page (12) there are forty-eight churches listed with the notation: "Letters were received from the following Churches, and most of them had Messengers present at the Association." The subject was chosen "by request" of the Association. The number of members in each church is not listed. jd)

[This Circular Letter was photocopied from the original at the Angus Library, Regents Park Baptist College, Oxford, England. - Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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