The Church and the Kingdom
A New Testament Study
By Jesse B. Thomas, D. D., LL.D
PART VI. CONTEMPORARY SIGNIFICANCE
IMPORTANCE OF DISTINCTION URGED
It may seem that the question under discussion is, after all, only one of those strivings "about words to no profit" against which Paul cautions Timothy. For we all agree in recognizing a certain kind of unity, created by community of discipleship: all believers are "made one through the blood of Christ" in some sense. There remains, then, only the question of the right name to apply to this unity. And what harm can come of calling it the "universal church," as well as the "universal kingdom"?
The objection is plausible but fallacious. False names are the most insidious of deceivers. "Errors of nomenclature are apt to avenge themselves by generating errors of idea," as Coleridge truly observes. And such errors are particularly dangerous when we are dealing with the language of revelation. "The words of the Lord are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth,
purified seven times." We can not suppose that our Lord, or his apostles under his guidance, selected loosely the terms which were to be of so large significance in directing the development of the new movement. We must recognize some force in the peculiar expression, "If a man love me, he will keep my words." If we can be certain what words he used, and the precise idea he intended to convey by them, it will be presumptuous and hazardous to substitute new names or intrude new meanings into the old. "He that reproveth God, let him answer it." It no doubt seemed innocent, at first, to call the Lord's table an "altar," and the presiding minister a "priest"; it might even be defended as a natural inference from the sacrificial allusions connected with the rite in the New Testament. But out of this seemingly insignificant departure from New Testament nomenclature, arose the whole hierarchical system. The "bishop" of the New Testament was the "pastor" of a local church. The name was afterward expanded so as to describe a diocesan ruler unknown to the apostolic churches, and when the pastor became a "priest," the bishop became logically a "high priest." It is thought absurd
to apply the New Testament designation "bishop" to a local pastor today, while the diocesan officer has become a "lord bishop," in direct violation of Christ's prohibition of "lordship." The Pope's claim to be Pontifex Maximus is the logical outcome of the reckless disregard of authoritative Scriptural precedent in the use of titles.
The evil does not end with the confusion of thought arising from doubleness of meaning in the word. The new meaning, having nestled amicably beside the old, under the brooding shelter of a common title, rarely fails to attempt a cuckoo-like monopoly of the place. All the world once agreed that baptism was immersion only. Clinic submergence first offered itself as a confessedly imperfect substitute; then pouring was hesitatingly admitted as sufficient; then sprinkling. Neither of these progressively dwindling forms of the rite was claimed to be normal, but permissible only in emergency: but, once admitted, they soon became lawfully equivalent, and, in the Westminster Confession, finally exclusive. The word "baptize" no longer suggests to the average pedobaptist the faintest hint of its New Testament meaning. It has become, as a late
Chinese version shrewdly put it, "the watering ceremony."
It can not, then, be a matter of indifference whether the notion of universality, visible or invisible, shall be allowed to attach itself to a term to which it does not legitimately belong in the usage of either the Apostles or the early Christian writers. If Christ and his appointed messengers cautiously preserved the distinction between "church" and "kingdom," uniformly treating the former as local and visible, and the latter as universal and invisible, nothing but harm can come from blurring the line of demarcation which they have set, and so confusing their teaching concerning each. The two ideas - that of a local organism on the one side, and that of a scattered and unaffiliated world-community on the other - are too incongruous to dwell harmoniously together under a common designation. To admit the idea of a Church universal, at all, is to make that "the church," and relatively to derogate from the importance of, and the honor due to, the local churches. We have seen that this secondary and "theological" has already asserted itself to be the true and primary meaning of the word.
Then, as every idea seeks to embody itself, he who regards himself as a member of the Church universal will naturally seek to adjust himself to the demands of the larger, as more important than the smaller, body to which he also belongs. John H. Newman, smitten with enthusiasm for the Church universal, which must from its very nature be one and historically continuous, went logically to Rome. Others, dreaming of a like church as essentially ideal in organization, have looked contemptuously on the "sects"; exhorting men to join a kind of "choir invisible," where denominationalism shall no longer hinder the communion of saints. Such sentimentalism is apt to degenerate into a Christianity as "invisible" as the vaporous constituency to which it fancies itself allied. He who loves the Church universal, while despising the church particular, is of no particular use to either. God "setteth the solitary in families." This is as true in the religious as in the social sphere, and "free love" is as disreputable and baneful in one as in the other.
It ought not to be easily forgotten that all historic efforts at reformation in Christian history have been expressed in the
assertion of the rights and functions of the local, against the dogmatism and tyranny of the general, body: and that this has grown out of a return to Scriptural teaching and precedent. The early hermits and monastic communities were asserters, however mistaken in ascetic ideal, of individualism and household independence, against the tyranny of the overshadowing imperial ecclesiasticism. The Waldenses, the Petrobrussians, and divers other "heretics" of the Middle Ages, were, as Milman significantly terms them, "Biblical Anti-Sacerdotalists," who denied the exclusive claims of the one historically continuous universal Church. One of the prime doctrines of Luther, the doctrine that turned reformation into revolt, was the assertion'of the priesthood of all believers, and the legitimacy of a freshly originated and self-organized church. The first ecumenical council under Constantine had issued the first authoritative creed, and its acceptance had been penally enforced. The Church universal, that is to say, announced its arrival by the introduction of dogmatism and persecution. Luther asserted the right of the individual to read, judge and obey for himself, and to combine with others
in the voluntary establishment of a free local organization, regulated and officered by independent election and ordination. He repudiated persecution: "the hangman is no doctor of divinity." But he was caught in the tangle of embarrassing circumstance, and faltered in the thorough working out of his reformatory principles. The state church accordingly arose: dogmatism returned as despotic as ever: the "hangman" was summoned again to remove heresy by removing the heretic: and Lutheranism lapsed from its incipient local independence. It remained for the early "Anabaptists," seconded at a later date by the Brownists of England, to break away from the universal or national body that had usurped the name of "the church," and as "seceders," "nonconformists," or "separatists," to assert the primitive and indefeasible right of the independent local body to the long-withheld title.
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