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Sovereignty of the Churches
The Tennessee Baptist, 1859
By J. M. Pendleton
      Men often use words without understanding their import. Sovereignty is one of the words so employed. In its absolute sense, it is applicable to God alone. He is the Sovereign of the Universe. He alone possesses supreme power, exercises an uncontrollable jurisdiction, and is perfectly irresponsible to all other beings. Royal and imperial sovereigns, so-called, are sovereigns in only a qualified sense. - The sovereignty of the government of the United States is a limited sovereignty; for there are rights possessed by the people who ordained the Federal Constitution, which were not surrendered to the general government, and the people are sovereign in an inferior sense. We hear many foolish things said about State sovereignty, when every State law which conflicts with the Constitution of the United States, is null and void. Strange sovereignty, if sovereignty is supreme power. In these days, much is said about the sovereignty of churches. Jesus Christ is the Sovereign Head of all his churches. If sovereignty resides in the Head of the Churches, how can it reside in Churches? Can sovereignty be delegated? Does it not belong peculiarly and inalienably to the sovereign? It is only in a very limited sense that churches can be called sovereign. It is questionable whether they ought to be so designated at all. Their independence is subject to limitation. Independent of evil government they may be - independent of one another they are; but independent of Christ they are not; independent of his statute book, the New Testament, they are not. They have no discretionary authority. They can do only what Christ requires them to do. Hence their action, when intentionally or unintentionally a departure from New Testament law, has no legality in it. Some one I imagine, will ask, Is the act of a church null and void merely because it is a departure from the law of the gospel? I answer, certainly. But suppose the church in her act does not intend to depart from the scriptural law? It makes no difference. The only question is, does she depart? Take an illustration: Suppose a State Legislature does not intend to pass a law in conflict with the Constitution, but does it. Is it binding? Does the absence of an intention to violate the Constitution render its violation impossible? If so, there can be no improper legislation by mistake; but it must be the result of corrupt purpose. Who will assume this ground ?

      When a church acts in accordance with the law of Christ, what it binds on earth is bound in heaven, and what it looses on earth is loosed in heaven. That is to say, it is approved, ratified, sanctioned in heaven. When a church acts otherwise, Heaven disapproves, censures, and condemns. It would be well for all to remember that churches, while independent of one another, are neither independent of Christ nor his law.


[From the Tennessee Baptist, November 12, 1859, p. 2. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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