The silence of scripture with respect to the precise rules by which a Christian church should be regulated, ought to teach us not to lay too great stress upon things of little importance, and to exercise our own prudence and wisdom in reference to those things, upon which it is necessary for us to act, but which lie beyond the express letter of scripture precept. All the use we can make of Scripture on the present occasion, will be to furnish ourselves with general rules and to observe the aspect they bear in favour or against the practice referred to.
In all Christian churches, those however that deserve that name, it is considered necessary to obtain satisfaction with respect to the piety of those who offer themselves as candidates. This is the end proposed by the church in requiring a public confession; and whatever best answers this end, will furnish a reply to the present query, and ought to be adopted.
There are but three ways in which a church as a collective body can, with any degree of convenience, obtain satisfaction respecting the piety of candidates for communion. The first is, by a personal address to the church when collected together, or a reply to questions proposed: the second is, by a written confession of our belief in divine truth : and the third is, by the churches appointing one or more representatives in whose judgment they can confide, to engage in free conversation with the individual, and afterwards report to the church what the individual stated to them.
The first of these modes has long been practised by the churches in our connexion; and this circumstance makes no inconsiderable impression on the minds of those whose habits of thinking have long since been formed — perhaps more upon trust than enquiry,. The long practice of a thing however does not alter its nature in the least: wrong would be wrong, though it were practised from the first ages to the present. There are two principal objections to this mode of receiving members. The first is, that it is ill calculated to answer the end designed, which is, the satisfaction of the body. In the case particularly of females, such is the perturbation and confusion into which they are thrown, that they nearly, if not entirely, lose the powers of memory and reflection. Instead, therefore, of giving a satisfactory account of their views of divine truth, and the influence it has had upon them, they only present us with a few detached ideas, extorted by fear, and strongly emblematical of the confusion of the mind from which they proceed. If any should say, that this fear is unnecessary and improper, and therefore can be no objection to the continuance of the practice, I would in reply, refer them to their own experience, if they have been of any standing in the church, whether, of the many who have come before the church in their hearing, any majority have been able to satisfy their minds by what they have at that time related? and whether the defect has not apparently arisen from the timidity natural to female manners? If such therefore, has been the case, it is fair reasoning to put it into the scale when determining on the propriety or impropriety of the practice.
The other objection arises from its naturally requiring females to speak before a public body, which it is conceived, is directly opposite to the apostolic command in 1 Corinthians xiv, 34, 35. Let your women learn to keep silence in the churches, for it is not permitted unto them to speak: but they are commanded to be under obedience; as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them
ask their husbands at home; for it is a shame for women to speak in the church. See also 1 Timothy ii, 11, 12. This language needs no comment; it is plain and express. And the reasons that are given for this subordination are such as cannot in the least degree be offensive to the tenderest susceptibility of the opposite sex. They are those which arise from the relation they bear to man, as being the weaker vessel, the derived, the dependant part. Thecircumtance, therefore, of their being required to give a verbal relation of their faith for the satisfaction of a public body, is not only in opposition to scripture, but to nature itself.
With regard to the second mode, that of a written declaration read by the minister, the only objection against it is this: That it is comparatively but few females could do it, or do it sufficiently correct for the inspection of a public body. And if another person were employed to draw up the account, there would be a danger of its not expressing exactly what the individual intended; or at least, the person so employed would be in danger of painting the picture in the colours of his own feelings. So that in fact, we should be liable to receive the experience of the agent employed, rather than of the candidate, as it is not to be supposed that the office would always fall into proper hands. The ground of satisfaction must in this case lie in the veracity of the writer, which is in fact placing it out of the cognizance of the church. Having made a few objections to the two first modes, the only one that now remains for notice is that of appointing representatives, in whose judgment and integrity the church can confide, to engage in free conversation at one or more intervals, and report to the church what the individual related to them.
Previous to the reception of any individual, it has been a general practice for the church to appoint two of its members to converse with the candidates, and report at the next church meeting whether they suppose them proper to appear before them as a body. This is good as far as it goes. In addition to this it is recommended instead of the usual form of the females appearing publicly before the church, let the messengers be more particular in gaining the utmost satisfaction as to the character and piety of the candidate. If it cannot be obtained at one interview, let it be repeated again and again; in fine, let them gain complete satisfaction, as to the real views and feelings of the party; and when they themselves are fully settled in their opinions, let them report the full and comprehensive evidence to the church on which.that opinion is founded. We may then conclude, so far as we can rely on the veracity of the messengers, that we have a developement of the whole unbiassed mind of the party, not extorted by fear, nor misrepresented by the interference of an employed agent.
It is urged by some that the mode of receiving members by a public coafession furnishes a check upon intruders, and that
any other plan would make the door so open as to admit improper persons. But it must be obvious, that it is improper to fix any thing as a door to the church which has not express scripture authority to rest upon; which for this practice no one will presume to find. Rather let us, if it answers this end, remove it on this very account. But not only is it unscriptural, but it is ill calculated to answer the end designed, i. e. to prevent the intrusion of improper persons. Those who are but partially acquainted with human nature will frequently have observed, that it is much less difficult for an intrepid and unhumbled person (whether male or female) to appear in public view, than it is for one, who, in addition to the natural timidity of her constitution, feels it increased by Christian humility and conscious unwothiness. Hence it follows, that where no other door (as it is improperly called) is presented, we are very liable to shut out those very persons who should be received, and to receive those who never should have entered.
But with respect to the method recommended above, if properly acted upon, it would supersede the necessity of a "door," either open or shut. The messengers having thoroughly acquainted themselves with the character and professions of the candidate, and the church being acquainted with the same through them, every desirable satisfaction would be obtained, and the church little liable to mistake in their judgment, while humble and upright characters are preserved from the Ordeal of public exposure.
To conclude, let us ever remember, that peace and concord are of infinitelv more importance than forms and ceremonies. Let us pursue truth under the influence of that charity which thinketh no evil, mindful of the exhortation, If any man be contentious, we have no such custom, nor the churches of Christ.
[From The Baptist Magazine, 1810. pp. 466-469. Document from Google Books.]
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