DEAR BRETHREN: There are few subjects concerning which there have been greater or more mischivious errors than the scriptural character of a Christian Church. To many minds the word Church conveys a vague idea of some vast undefined spiritual power, now comprehending whole nations indiscriminately, and again resolved into a ministerlal hierarchy or into one human infallible head. We hear of the Church, decreeing; of the Church teaching; and of the Church being infallible. But if we inquire who composed the Church, be it protestant or papist it will be found that a limited privileged class, of ministers, priests, or bishops, is the Church while the ordinary definition of that word, and its invariable use in God's Word denies to such conferences, councils, or synods the tittle [sic] of a Church, or the Church.
The scriptural meaning of the word Church, is a Company of of believers baptized on a profession of their faith, and united. in a holy covenant to observe the teachmg;and execute the will of Christ.
IT WAS AN ASSEMBLY. -- The first record of a Gospel Church, we find in Acts 1st.. Here was a distinct affiliated, enrolled body of disciples. "The number of names together was about one hundred and twepty." This is the definite historic descrjptipn of a Church of Christ.
IT WAS A LOCAL ASSEMBLY. -- It was called the Church of Jerusalem. There the company met for worship.
IT WAS SPIRITUAL. -- The members were pierced to the heart; had gladly received the Word, and were baptized. Those who were baptized into the fellowship of Churches, mentioned in the New Testament, are described under such expressions as "born of the spirit;" "passed from death unto life;" "children of God;" believers added to the Lord, &c. Being a spiritual assembly of necessity.
IT WAS A VOLUNTARY ASSEMBLY. -- None were forced into if without or against their will. Voluntary submission, voluntary obedience, ever was, and ever must be, essential to membership in a Gospel Church.
IT WAS INDEPENDENT. -- The organizations called Churches in the New Testament, were evidently distinct from, and independent of, each other. When the Church in Jerusalem was scattered, and others established in places, over these it had no ecclesiastical supervision, no control or dictation whatever, "The Church at Jerusalem " is ever distinguished fom those "throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria;" nor is there the least intimation that the members of these latter Churches belonged to the former in any sense, either by adopting its name, or obeying its commands.
"Tell it to the Church," said Christ., to the whole Church when assembled, not to the session, the class or the conference. If be will not hear the Church, let him be to thee as an heathen man and a Publican." Where are we to find the place of appeal? If he will not hear the
Church, shall he demand a hearing before some tribunal above a Church and that not a Church? "We have no such custom, neither the Churches of Christ." He has instituted no such tribunals, and we dare not. He has made his Churches independent of all such "higher court" contrivances; and his will is our supreme law. That a Church thus independent, may act unwisely, tyranically, and even wlckedly, cannot be doubted. That the best and wisest among men may do so is a sad and undeniable fact. What, then, shall be the refuge of the victim of injustice or prejudice, condemned by and expelled from a. Church, from whose decision there is, no earthly appeal? Does not this mdependency in fact destroy the equalIty between Churches, making the decision of one body rule all the rest, and thus one Church, by expelling its members, though evidently unjustly, compel all other Churches to treat him as such.
It is true that constancy between Churches in union with each other; demands that respect be paid to each other's decisions. For one Church to receive indiscriminately the ejected members of another, would distroy all harmony, co-operation, and communion, between the Churches of Christ. Yet, the independence which gives one Church the right to expel any member, gives every other Church the right to receive anyone into its membership, whether he be expelled from another Church or not. If the action of one Church is to control the action of another; if the unquestioned right of the Church for expelling, destroys the right of a sister Chul'ch to receive a member, independency is of course destroyed.
The evils, therefore, which may arise from the sovereignty of Churches, in the language of Dr. Wayland, "are rectified by the very principle to which they are attributed."
The usage among Baptists, therefore, has ever been, to receive no member expelled from a sister Church, unless satisfied that such member has been subjected to unfairness or oppression. In such case, and such only, may Churches exercise their inherent right as independent bodies, and receive whom they think fit into their membership.
The only evil which could result from such a course between neighboring Churches would be the want of fellowship and co-operation. Yet even this is provided for in the simple rule laid down by the Redeemer. The law which governs the individual deciples, is equally applicable to Churches. Let such Churches endeavor to settle between themselves. If this cannot be accomplished, "take one or two others." Let the Councils of other Churches be sought. Let the advice of disinterested Brethren or Churches be followed, and harmony, in almost every supposable case, will be the result.
Such is the beautiful and simple discipline laid down by Christ for the government of his children and Churches. Each Church is a distinct independent little republic executing the laws of its Supreme Lawgiver. And while it confines within these little republics, what ever of trouble may spring up, without scattering the evil throughout the whole denomination, it flings an amount of responsibility on each Church and each member which should be devoutly and tremblingly reaJized. What humility, what purity, what spiritual mindedness should characterize that body, to whom Christ has solely committed the execution of His will? ==============[From Long Run Minutes, 1856. From the Southern Baptist Seminary Library, Archives and Special Collections, Louisville, KY. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall]
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