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Northbend Association of Baptists
Circular Letter

Characteristics of a True Gospel Church
Written by Lewis Webb, 1843
Sand Run Baptist Church
      BELOVED BRETHREN: - God in his providence has again permitted us to meet as an association, and we feel under renewed obligations to adore the riches of divine grace which has preserved us in peace through the year that has just closed; and our hearts are filled with gratitude to our heavenly Father, who has so abundantly blessed us with the outpourings of his Holy Spirit in conversion of many precious souls, who have been delivered from the power of darkness, and have been translated into the kingdom of his dear Son. Brethren, we have abundant matter of joy. Every church of this Association, and others around us, have been refreshed from the presence of the Lord. Three new churches have been constituted, consisting largely of late additions by baptism and added to this Association. Copious showers have graciously been sent down upon us, richly displaying the freeness and fulness of sovereign grace. The gates of Zion have been crowded with heaven-born subjects, who have willingly and joyfully bowed to the reign of King Emmanuel, whilst multitudes of saints and spectators from time to time, at the baptismal waters, have witnessed the beauties and solemnities of the emblem of the burial and resurrection of the Prince of Life. Having been made alive to God by his quickening Spirit, and openly and willingly put him on by being "buried with him in baptism in the likeness of his death, and rising again to newness of life, in the likeness of his resurrection," these baptized believers are proper subjects of the visible church, and when thus added, are entitled to a full participation in all the rights and privileges of the militant kingdom of God. Hence we learn that according to primitive gospel order, that whenever a number of believers, who have been thus inducted into Messiah's militant kingdom, and both in principle and practice were "endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace," they were called a church. "There is one body and one spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is above all, and through all, and in you all." Having thus glanced at some of the characteristics that distinguish a true gospel church of Christ, we would further remark, that an assemblage of worshipping believers constituted into a church, whether their number be many or few, whether they may excel in counsel or not, they are independent. They are the highest ecclesiastical body or tribunal known to the scriptures of divine truth. No council, no synod, no conclave of bishops, no association, no papal vicegerent, has a right to control the independent action of the church, or to enforce an edict emenating from such hierarchy. The Savior is the only lawgiver of the churches. They have no right to alter or abolish this law, but are bound to receive it as the man of their counsel, as the infallible rule of their action. The scriptures afford a sufficient guide, not only in church organization and discipline, but in the choice of its officers, in receiving and expelling its own members; and for the manner in which it executes the high trust confided to her, she is only accountable to Christ himself, and by no means amenable to any ecclesiastical tribunal: and for this plain reason that every gospel church is of itself complete, and contains all the elements necessary to its own existence and government, and for the exercise of the highest ecclesiastical power. The multiplicity of churches, or the gathering of the disciples into churches at different places, does not, neither can it affect this principles, because each church is as independent in all that concerns its privileges as such, as if it were the only one in existence. Any association formed by a number of churches for mutual assistance in counsel, in edification, or in promoting the welfare of Zion, does not add to, or can it take from the duties and privileges of each separate church; because all the churches united, have not the power to alter or abolish the laws of Christ. Those laws like himself are immutable. Therefore the church dare not alter them. Having taken this cursory view of the independence of each separate church, we are further led to believe it to be correct, from the fact that it is nowhere hinted in the writings of the Evangelists or Apostles, that any one church was addressed as subordinate, neither was any church addressed as superior, but all as independent and complete of themselves, such as "The church at Ephesus" - "The seven churches which are in Asia." &c.

      We have been induced to make these remarks because we are led to believe that the powers of an association organized as ours is, are not fully understood. An opinion has attained to some extent, that the Association is a tribunal of final resort, and of a higher order than the church. This we consider to be an erroneous impression, and one that, in its tendency, if encouraged, would subvert the freedom and independence of the churches. We should studiously guard against any encroachment upon our religious liberties. Our fathers in the first organization of this association distinctly disavowed any such intention, and in defining its powers, declared that the association should be an advisory council, and not an authoritative body. Hence we discover that so far as relates to the enforcing of any edict, this body is destitute of power, yet its counsel should receive the dispassonate consideration of the churches; "for in the multitude of counsellors there is safety." - Having thus deliberately entertained the counsel and opinions of the association, it remains for the free, the uncontrolled actions of the churches, in their sound discretion, to adopt or reject them. The principle object of its organization is to set forth the declarative glory of God - promote in a more extended manner the welfare of his people - to cultivate a friendly intercourse, and extend an acquaintance with the brethren - to aid by its counsel in matters of interest and difficulty that may incidentally occur - to promote order and the dissemination of truth - to arrest the progress of error by its united wisdom, and to discountenance disorder by withdrawing from those whose faith and practice do not accord with the truths of the gospel.

      Whenever an Association travels out of its proper sphere and assumes a dictatorial attitude, it is exerting an influence prejudicial to the best interests of the churches. Of this, however, there is but little danger when its powers are well defined and understood. We do not say that among our brethren generally there is a tendency towards concentrating power by erecting a hierarchy, at whose dictation the churches must bow. No - we rejoice to feel assured that the contrary is the fact; that they are the ardent advocates of religious liberty; that they would indignantly repel any attempt to subvert the freedom and independence of the churches, or the rights and privileges of the members, individually, either by direct or remote influence. That they will steadfastly adhere to the free and liberal system of church government which has heretofore distinguished them as a denomination of christians, and thus transmit untarnished to our successors, the free exercise and enjoyment of those inestimable privileges.

      We do not conceive that the cause of truth would sustain any injury by a dissemination of the views which we entertain in regard to the government and discipline of the church, because we believe them to be in accordance with the will of the great Head of the Church, as revealed in the scriptures of divine truth, and founded upon the practice of the primitive churches under the immediate guidance of the inspired apostles, whose example we imitate as far as the light of truth has illuminated our understanding. We therefore feel assured that the divine blessing will attend our efforts to diffuse, more generally, a knowledge of our faith and practice, and whilst we disclaim all harshness or censure of those who may differ from us, we would most affectionately entreat a prayerful consideration of the peculiar views that distinguish us as a church of Christ.

      And now, dear brethren, in conclusion, "we beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called." we are called to many high and precious privileges, we ought therefore properly to appreciate them, but we fear that much religious enjoyment is lost by neglecting the injunction of Christ and his apostles to honor and adorn the profession we have made by a pious walk and godly conversation - and evincing to the world that we have been with Jesus - that we have tasted that he is precious. The sweet union of kindred souls when engaged in the service of the Lord, affords the child of grace the only real, heartfelt joy - a joy unmixed with any painful sensations - a joy that raises the affections above, and animates the heart with love to God, and love to one another.

      If therefore, the service of the Lord here below is rewarded with blessings so peculiar in character and tendency, what rapture should seize the mind whilst contemplating the great and glorious reward treasured up in heaven for all those who by divine grace have been made to rejoice in the hope of eternal life. Let this blessed hope animate us to press forward in our heavenly race with an eye steadfast on the prize. "For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved we have a building of God, a house not made with hands eternal in the heavens."


[From Northbend Baptist Association Minutes, 1843. The grammar and spelling are unchanged. Transcribed and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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