Baptist History Homepage

Baptist Waymarks,
Samuel H. Ford, 1903

Chapter XV
Sovereignty of Church or Association

THE word sovereignty means, or at least implies, authority or supreme rule. It further implies lawmaking power. The sovereign is in reality the fountain of law. Sovereignty in a man is autocracy; that is to say, the sovereign is the personal lawmaker, and when sovereignty belong to God, "he is Lord of all." In the matter of faith and practice, he is the Sovereign, and no one else is in any way whatever.

The Lord Jesus is Sovereign of the churches. He gave their laws, their ordinances, their government, "he gave some apostles, some teachers," and for the perfecting of the saints. The apostles were not sovereign - not lawmakers: "Who then is Paul, and who then is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, as the Lord gave to every man?" Christ Jesus enjoined upon the Twelve to teach, "Whatsoever I have commanded you." He assured them that the Holy Spirit should "bring all things to your remembrance whatosever I have commanded your remembrance whatsoever I have commanded you." Their work was ministerial, or executive, not sovereign. There can be no sovereign but
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Christ Jesus. A gospel church is not sovereign. It is to do what the Lord Jesus commanded. It is to carry out his will. Christ is the Lawmaker, the churches are the executives of his laws.

The president of these United States is an executive, not a sovereign. He can make no laws. He is the chief executive of the laws which exist, or are enforced. The Congress is not sovereign, it is repesentative. It is supposed to carry out the will of the people whom it represents. Nor is the Supreme Court sovereign. It is to decide as to the constitutionality of the laws, but enacts none and can enforce none.

The individual is sovereign, with constitutional limits; the people are sovereign, as they are the real lawmakers, and hence the maxim: "The will of the people is the supreme law."

But the will of the Lord Jesus (not the will of the people or council) is the supreme law of his churches. They can enact no laws; to do so, or to attempt to do so, is not only presumptuous, but treasonable too.

The following is from John M. Peck, next to Benedict, one of the best informed men in our denominaiton: 1

"Has the church of Jesus Christ any right to interfere with the discipline of any other church?
1 Published in "Repository" in 1852, after haivng been read on approval by the Illiniois Ministers' Conference.
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"To understand this question in its legitimate bearing and give an intelligent answer, we must explain the terms employed; and in their definition we shall be guided by Baptist views of New Testament institutions.

"The term 'church' means a congregation of believers - the disciples of Christ acting as a polity 'called to be saints' - those who have been baptized and have voluntarily united in covenant relation as a community to worship God and obey the laws of Christ.

"The church in Jeruslaem, composed of about one hundred and twenty persons (Acts 1:15), and at a subsequent period of several thousand, was such a community. Such also were the Christain communities in Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Antioch, Philippi, and the churches in Galatia, in Macedonia, and in Asia minor. These were distinct and separate congregations, the members of each assembling every Lord's Day, and at other seasons, for the worship of God, and to manage their affairs as separate comunities.

"In such communities the term 'disciple' includes all that relates to the supervision of members over each other. It includes the reception of members to fellowship in the community, Christian watchfulness over the morals and doctrine of each other; admonishing and reclaiming offenders, and excluding unworthy members.
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"The rules of discipline are to be found, not in creeds, forms of faith, canons, or ecclesiastical decisions regarded as precedents, but in the plain and obvious instructions and examples of the New Testament. These precepts and examples are not implications drawn from abstract principles, but such teachings as would readily impress the minds and consciences of the disciples of Christ, who have studied prayerfully the word of the Lord, and are willing to perform whatever he directs.

"Not every mistake or misapprehension of particular truths and precepts, or improper temper, language, or conduct exhibited are to subject the delinquent to the discipline of the church, else no member would be exempt. Such only as are open, direct, and flagrant derelictions of Christian character; such as tend to endanger the salvation of the delinquent and bring reproach on the church as the body of Christ, are the proper and scriptural grounds of censure and exclusion. Least of all should the wicked practice of evil surmisings and uncharitable suspicions be the occasion of church censure. Certainly no surmising of misconduct or of erroneous doctrines can rightfully be made the ground of church discipline. All such surmising is wicked in itself and condemned in the Scriptures as a grevious offense (1 Timothy 6:4).

"The term 'authority' in the question cannot
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mean any form of arbitrary power. It cannot include human legislation in or out of the church, for the servant has no power to usurp the authority of the master and make laws for the government of fellow-servants. Its meaning is exclusive, and must be determined by scriptural precept or example drawn from the various cases of discipline mentined in the New Testament. The most dangerous power is that derived by implication, and not from precept or example.

"The question now assumes this form: Has the New Testament established or even recognized any authority in the hands of any man, or company of men to sit in judgment on the proceedings of any church of Jesus Christ? Such power, if it does exist, necessarily includes several particulars, as power to look into the conduct of a church, examine its records, institute an ecclesiastical court, prescribe the form of trial, summon and examine witnesses, punish those who refuse to testify, adjudicate on the church, decide the case, and if adjudged guilty execute the penalty. All these particulars must be included in the supposed authority, or the procedure wouldbe farcical.

"All Baptists maintain that each church, in its own capacity, is a judicial body, and capable of conducting a trial, and executing the penalty enjoined in the New Testament on incorrigible offenders. If there is any higher court to sit in
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judgment on the proceedings of the church, supposed to be delinquent, it must have all the power in its capacity, belonging to a superior court in reversing the decision, and granting redress to the injured party. If such provision has been made by the Head of the church, it can be shown from precept or example in the New Testament. The common plea urged to justify the interference of one church with the affiairs of another is necessity. The question is asked, 'What shall be done when a church is defective in discipline, holds disorderly members in fellowship, or excludes those who do not deserve it?' We answer by proposing other questions involved in the supposition. Who is to judge in such a case? Where is the court invested with power from the New Testament to try the case? It is enough for our purpose to state that the Head of the church has made no such provision for interference.

"There were cases in the primitive churches that called for such interferences, if it is ever proper for one church to interfere with the discipline of another. The condition of the church at Corinth, as developed in the first Epistle of Paul to that community, is in point. That church was in a most disorderly state, as the following particulars will show:

"1. The members were divided into parties, and claimed to be the disciples of those apostles and
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ministers who had baptized and taught them. One party claimed to be the disciples of Paul; another class were the followers of Apollos; another party claimed Peter as their guide; and a fourth party recognized Christ as their leader (I Corinthian 1:12).

"2. A member who was a member of influence, and supposed by commentators to have been a preacher or teacher, was guilty of fornication and incest - a crime the heathen condemned, and they kept him in the church until Paul wrote the severe reproof in this Epistle.

"3. Instead of settling pecuniary difficulties by reference to the arbitration of brethren in the church, they prosecuted each other before heathen magistrates (chapter 3).

"4. Disorderly connections and separations in the marriage relation are mentioned in chapter 7.

"5. Some of the members commingled with idolaters in the heathen temples, and partook of things offered to the idols, thus giving countenance to idolatrous worship (chapter 8).

"6. They neglected the duty of sustaining those persons who had been set apart, and were devoted to the ministry of the gospel, so as to compel them to perform this warfare at their own charge (chapter 9).

"7. The personal appearance and behavior of the women in their public assemblies were of such a character as to bring reproach on Christianity (chapter 11).
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"8. Instead of a proper observance of the Lord's Supper by the church, the members met in parties at each other's home, and made a kind of riotous festival, not discerning the Lord's body (ibid.).

"9. Instead of employing the diversified gifts bestowed on the church for mutual edification, they exalted some and despised others (chapter 12).

"10. They were disorderly in their public assemblies, and prayed and taught in "unknown tongues' out of vain glory (chapter 14).

"Rarely can a religious community now be found as delinquent and disorderly as this church had become in about four years after its establishment under the ministry of the Apostle Paul (Acts 18).

"A cause of these flagrant derelictions may be found in the fact that Corinth was a very corrupt city, and that a much larger number of this church had been converted from heathenism, and while in that state had been more grossly wicked than those of other churches (I Corinthians 6: 9, 11).

"If any case called for the interference of other churches this was the one. Had it been the mind of the Lord that such ecclesiastical supervision should exist the Holy Spirit would have given instructions to that effect. No other church moved in the business, yet there was intercourse and inter-communion between this and neighboring churches. The mode of producing a reformation in this delinquent church was the following: Paul, the apostle
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to the Gentiles, directed thereunto by the Holy Spirit, wrote a letter, enumerating each of the delinquencies, and in the language of reproof, yet of courtesy, kindness, and faithfulness, urged the members to reform. This letter had the desired effect, a revival of pure religion was the result, and an entire change of conduct followed. "We learn this fact from the second Epistle. The seventh chapter of that Epistle describes their 'sorrow after a godly sort,' and their 'reformation unto life.' The writings of Paul and other inspired apostles, enforced by the ministers of Christ, are the antidote to all such disorders. In this case we have no intimation of a presbytery, a synod, a quarterly, annual, or general conference, a convention of 'bishops and laity,' and 'ecumenical council,' or even an 'association,' or a 'council' of churches called for the purpose. All these bodies, when engaged in making laws to regulate the affairs of the kingdom of heaven, or to sit in judgment on the acts of the churches of Jesus Christ, are human contrivances to remedy a supposed evil for which Infinite Wisdom, at a time when such institutions were needful, if ever, made no provision.

"The subject will receive further elucidation by considering the nature of church fellowship. Personal acquaintance is the starting-point in church fellowship and discipline. It has been arranged by Infinite Wisdom that the members of each particular
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church shall have opportunity of personal acquaintance with each other, and know each other's feelings, desires, and conduct. Hence all Christian churches, formed after the apostolic model, are local societies, meeting together in one place, and worshiping God in company. The New Testament knows nothing about those ecclesiastical hierarchies that extend over a country or a nation. There is a very obvious line of distinction made between the churches mentioned in the New Testament as local bodies. Each was a separate community, and in discipline wholly independent of the rest. By this arrangement personal intercourse among the members belonging to the same community was provided. Discipline extended no further than the members who had entered into covenant with each other. All delinquent members were tried by their brethren, with whom they were in special covenant relation. They would know all the circumstances, and make allowances for mistakes and defects in knowledge. Such were the churches and such the discipline as testified by Mosheim, Jones, Neander, and other historians.

"The members were equal in rights and privileges. Pastors, evangelists, and deacons were chosen by the brotherhood, from their own membes by lifting up the hand.1 No factitious importance
1 1 The term ordain, properly means to appoint, and in this instance expresses the act of the churches, under the instruction or guidance of the apostles. Dr. Adam Clarke inquires ("Commentary and Critical Notes," in loco): "What is the meaning of the word cheirotoneesantes, which we translate ordained? The word ordain we use in an ecclesiastical sense, and signify by it the appointment of a person to an office in the church, by the imposition of the hands of those who are rulers in that church. But cheirotonia signifies holding up, or stretching out the hand, as approving of the choice of any person to a particular work." Doctor Clarke then quotes Zonaras, a Greek author, in proof that the word expressed the mode of election anciently by holding up the hand. Mr. Harrington is quoted by Doddridge, who renders the words, "ordained them elders by the votes of the people."
Doctor Gill says: "The apostles directed the churches to look out from among themselves, as in the case of deacons, an inferior office, who by joint suffrages declared their choice of them, by stretching out, or lifting up their hands, as the word cheirotoneesantes here signifies, and not the imposition of hands." [Note: In the document, much of this footnote is on the next page.]
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was attached to these offices. The persons thus appointed were still subject to the discipline of the church to which they belonged, and the only inspired direction to the churches was, not to receive an accusation against an elder except by the testimony of two or three witnesses. There does not appear to be the least intimation in the New Testament, either expressed or implied, that any one or more churches should exercise authority over another church, or its members. We regard al such interference as usurpation, and highly dangerous to the welfare of the churches.

"But the inquiry is sometimes made, what shall be done with the delinquent churches who are united in the same Association? Is there no scriptural authority for discipline in such cases?

"An association of churches is not a divine institution,
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and therefore has no ecclesiastical power whatever. It is a human device, the same as a Bible society, a Sunday-school, or a missionary society; lawful and proper for legitimate objects, such as would be proper for individual Christians to do in religions affairs, but wholly unlawful when it assumes church authority, and to sit in judgment on the discipline of churches. If the authority to govern churches did not exist originally, any compact entered into by men cannot create it. Churches, when formed after the scriptural pattern, are institutions of Christ, not voluntary societies which men may originate for lawful purposes, and therefore possess no power to delegate their authority to other bodies. All that pertains to church discipline originated from the HEAD, through his inspired records, and those who are governed by the laws of Christ's kingdom have no authority to transfer the responsibility imposed on the brotherhood to any other body. There can be no such thing as representation, in the proper sense of the term, in any organization of churches without the subversion of the theory of church government as taught in the New Testament and held by Baptists. Representation carries with it the idea of legislation, and Baptists have always disclaimed all human legislation in the kingdom of Christ. 'The Lord is our lawgiver' (Isaiah 33:22).

"All the power possessed in discipline in every
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church is judicial, and that exclusively by single churches over their own members. As people are very often led astray by the misuse of words, it is suggested that the scriptural term, 'messengers of the churches' (2 Corinthians 8:23), be used to express the relation of those brethren, who are sent on errands to Associations, or any other temporary and prudential organization.

"Is the inquiry made, 'What shall be done by an Association of churches, in case a church becomes immoral or heretical?'

"The first step is to rid our minds of some notions that are fallacious, as that the same relation exists between churches in an Associaiton as between members in the same church, and that Associations have anything to do in church government and discipline. Next, we should regard an Association in the same light as a missionary society, a Bible society, a ministerial conference, or any other organization for philanthropic purposes merely.

"If a church in the vicinity does not think it to be expedient to join the Association, it ought not to impair fellowship. The fellowship, inter-communion, and intercourse between churches is not a matter of human, but of divine arrangement; and all Christian churches that are organized after the divine pattern, and follow the footsteps of the Captain of our salvation, are required to be in fellowship with each other, but not to interfere with the
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rights of each, in executing the laws of the King. If a church already connected with an Association chooses to discontinue that particular connection at any time, it involves no breach of union.

"An Association of churches is analogous to the union of several families, from one parental stock, living in the same vicinage, and accustomed to meet annually in a social form at each other's houses. Each family is entirely independent in its domestic arrangements, and one never thinks of sitting in judgment on the discipline of the other. They associate because they are related, have affinity in language and feelings, and entertain mutual sympathy in each other's welfare. Suppose one of these families becomes dissolute, keeps a disorderly house, and commits unlawful acts. Is there any authority given for the other families to organize a court and sit in judgment on the case? Could the social party, at their annual meeting, act in the way of family discipline and decree punishment? What then can be done? The facts are supposed to be notorious. No special testimony is necessary to prove the defection. THe other families, as a matter of self-preservation, will cease to associate with the disorderly family. On the same principle, and when the case becomes notorious, the Association will drop a delinquent church from its Minutes.

"In the application of this supposed case to the
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associational connection, it will be understood that the conduct of a church must be open and flagitious to require a discontinuance of customary, fraternal intercourse. Not every defection in doctrine or mistake in discipline would justify the withdrawal of all influence and intercourse. Many cases of irregularity and defect may exist, without the virtual declaration of non-intercourse. Much good can be done by ministers of the gospel and other brethren visiting the church, holding a series of meetings, and by preaching, exhortations, and prayer, a revival may be produced and the evil cured. Such means are far more efficient and profitable than committees of Associations, councils, or any assumptions of authority whatever.

"The calling of 'councils,' is an extensive practice of the Baptist denomination in the Northern States. Councils originate from the invitation of a church, or a party in a church, and occasionally from the concerted action of neighboring churches, sending an invitation for their pastors and deacons, or other members, to 'sit in council' and adjudicate on certain matters. Ordinarily, there are three subjects that are submitted to such councils. First, the ordination of ministers. Second, the reconition of newly formed churches, as in fellowship. Third, the adjustment of difficulties in a church. In the last case the council is mutual, when the parties agree to call the coucil to adjust
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the matter, or ex parte, as when one of the parties makes the call and notifies the other to attend. In some instances councils have been called to adjudicate matters of difficulty between two churches.

"It is conceded by all Baptists that these 'councils' have no ecclesiastical power, and can only advise and exert a friendly influence, and not adjudicate the matter. This practice was not an original Baptist feature, but seems to have been borrowed from the Puritans of Massachusetts and Connecticut, who were semi-Presbyterians in some features of church polity.

"A 'more excellent way' prevails in the Baptist churches in the Southern States, and to a large extent in the Mississippi Valley. Instead of sending to churches for a species of representative action, a church which is in difficulty, or needs help, or has a preacher to be ordained, gives invitations to individual persons, ministers, and other brethren, to arbitrate on difficulties, or to aid in examining or setting apart a candidate to the ministry.

"An arbitration is a sure and safe mode of adjusting difficulties, and avoids all appearance of factitious authority, but the arbiters should never act unless the parties pledge themselves to abide by their decision; for the individual party who will not confide in the judgment and abide by the decision of impartial, disinterested brethren manifests the obstinacy of temper and that degree of
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selfishness that wholly unfits him for membership in a church of Christ, and should be excluded as an incorrigible offender.

"If these principles are correct, then all declarations of non-fellowship by churches, Associations, or other organized bodies, concerning other churches, are wrong - are a usurpation of power that does not belong to them; and in its tendency is subversive of the New Testament order of churches."

[Samuel H. Ford, Baptist Waymarks, ABPS, 1903. Transcribed from the original document by Linda Duvall; the document was provided by Pastor Steve Lecrone, Burton, OH. Formatted by Jim Duvall]

Chapter 16

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