REV. JOHN T. PRESSLY, D.D.
UNITED PRESBYTERIAN BOARD OF PUBLICATION.
Let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing—Paul.
WHY A CREED IS NECESSARY.
WHO should be received by the Church to the enjoyment of her fellowship? is a question of no little practical importance, and one in relation to which there exists much diversity of opinion. This question might be answered by saying that those, and those only, should be received into her fellowship whom the Church is bound to receive into her membership. But while this answer would be correct, it is not sufficiently definite to be of any practical utility. For it would still remain a question, Who has a right to membership in the Church? To this question it may be sufficient for my present purpose to give the general answer, that the Church should require of those whom she receives into membership that they unite with her in the profession of the faith and submit to her authority. The profession of the Church is embodied in her creed, or confession of faith; and, consequently, the ground of admission to membership in the Church is the adoption of her creed,—or, in other words, union with the Church in the profession of the faith and subjection to her authority. But, as the propriety of adopting a creed has been called in question, before entering particularly upon the subject of a right to the fellowship of the Church, it may be proper, in the first place, to inquire, Whence arises the necessity of a creed, or confession of faith? Why is it necessary that the Church should have a creed?
A creed, according to its general acceptation, is a summary of certain principles adopted by an association of individuals as articles of belief, by which they agree to be governed. The word is of Latin origin, being derived from the verb credo (I believe). According to ecclesiastical usage, a creed is an exhibition in human language of what are believed by its framers to be the great doctrines of the Bible. As a formula of the faith, it possesses no independent authority, but derives its very existence, and all the regard to which it lays claim from the Bible. It does not profess to make known any thing which has not already been revealed, nor does it undertake to constitute any thing truth which was not truth before; but its office is simply to draw forth from the word of God the great truths therein revealed, and state them in plain, intelligible language.
No society of men, whatever may be the purpose for which it is formed, whether commercial, political, scientific, or religious, can exist and carry out the design of its formation without a creed. There must be an exhibition of certain well-defined principles in relation to which there is agreement among the members composing the society; and these principles constitute the creed by which the association is to be governed. And the Church, being a society composed of the professed followers of Christ, who have associated together for certain great purposes, must, in common with other societies, have a creed, in order that she may carry out the design of her organization.
If all who profess the name of Christ understood the Bible in the same sense and interpreted the Bible in the same way, a creed distinct from the Bible would be unnecessary. In that case, all that would be necessary to ascertain that there exists agreement among the members of the Church would be simply a profession of faith in all the doctrines of the Bible. But, since it is not so,—since, among those who professedly regard the Bible as the rule of faith and life very different interpretations are put upon the word of God,—it becomes necessary that those who associate together in an ecclesiastical capacity should adopt a creed, in which there is a plain exhibition of what they understand to be the doctrines of the Bible. In no other way can it be known whether there exists among them that agreement which is indispensably necessary to secure co-operation in their efforts to advance the interests of Christ’s kingdom.
Accordingly, the Church from the beginning has found it necessary to act upon the principle of having a creed. Even in apostolic days, when an individual desired to be received into the household of faith, and to enjoy the privileges of the Church he was required, not simply to make a general declaration of his faith in the Sacred Scriptures as the word of God, but to signify his belief of certain great doctrines which the Church received upon the authority of the Bible. For example, when the Ethiopian eunuch, after being instructed by the evangelist Philip in the doctrines of Christianity, desired to be received into the Church by baptism, Philip demanded of him a profession of his faith:—“If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest.” The eunuch then signified his belief, not simply of the lively oracles, as a revelation from God, but of the fundamental, distinguishing doctrine embraced in the creed of the Church, as founded on the word of God:—“I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” (Acts 8:37.)
In the primitive days of Christianity, the creed of the Church was brief and simple, embracing a few of the leading fundamental doctrines of the Bible. But in process of time false doctrines were propagated, and the Scriptures were misinterpreted to make them countenance these doctrines; and hence it became necessary that the Church should declare explicitly what she understood to be the truth taught in those portions of Scripture which were perverted by the advocates of error. And thus as errors were multiplied, it became necessary that the creed should be enlarged, that a testimony might be lifted up in defence of the truth and in opposition to error.
But as the utility of creeds or confessions of faith is not only denied by many, but they are represented to be the fruitful source of discord and strife, it is proposed to inquire, Whence arises the necessity for a creed? I answer:—
1. To secure that harmony and co-operation among the members of the Church which is requisite to enable the Church to promote the great design of her organization, a creed is necessary. No society can accomplish the object for which it is formed unless there is co-operation among its members. And that they may co-operate together, there must be agreement in relation to the principles they hold and the rules by which they are to be governed. The Church is a society composed of those who have associated together for the promotion of the glory of God, and for the advancement of their mutual interests and the welfare of their fellow-men. To secure the accomplishment of these ends, they who are associated together in the capacity of a Church must adopt the same great principles and must walk by the same rule. If they are not of one mind, but are governed by discordant principles, instead of promoting the same great object, one will throw down that which another is endeavouring to build up. Accordingly, the Sacred Scriptures everywhere inculcate on the members of the Church the duty of cultivating unity of sentiment and of feeling. “I beseech you, brethren,” says the apostle, “by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind, and in the same judgment.”(1 Cor. 1:10.) “Now the God of patience and consolation grant you to be like-minded one toward another according to Christ Jesus; that ye may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom. 15:5.) “Only let your conversation be as becometh the gospel of Christ, that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel.” (Phil. 1:27.) From these and similar declarations which abound in the word of God, it is manifestly the duty of the members of the Church to cultivate unity of spirit, and to co-operate in maintaining the faith of the gospel.
But how can it be known that the members of the Church are of one mind? How can it be ascertained that they are agreed in relation to the doctrines contained in that system of faith revealed in the gospel, in maintaining which they are to strive together? A general profession of faith in every thing contained in the Bible affords no conclusive evidence of the existence of this agreement. Such a profession will be made by all who regard the Bible as a revelation from God. And yet many who make this profession hold principles directly antagonistic to each other; because they put very different interpretations upon the Bible. In order, therefore, to ascertain whether we are of one mind, and are, consequently, prepared to co-operate together in the prosecution of a common object, we must know not only that the parties concerned are willing to profess their faith in all that is contained in the Bible, but we must likewise understand how they interpret the Bible. And this can be ascertained only by the adoption of a creed, in which there is an exhibition in plain and intelligible language of what are understood to be the great doctrines of the Bible.
Since, then, the Church is a society composed of those who have associated together for the promotion of a common object, to secure the accomplishment of this object there must exist among her members co-operation. To secure this co-operation they must be of one mind and must walk by the same rule. And to ascertain that they are of one mind, and can therefore walk together in harmony, it is necessary that they adopt a creed which shall contain a summary of those great truths to which they pledge their adherence. Having signified their mutual approbation of this form of sound words, they are now prepared to stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel.
2. That the Church may discharge her appropriate duty as a witness for the truth, a creed is necessary. The Church, in her organized capacity, is the divinely-appointed witness for God and for his truth in the midst of an ungodly world. Ye are my witnesses, says God to his chosen people, that I am the Lord. The Church is the sacred depository to whose custody and care the oracles of truth have been committed. “What advantage, then, hath the Jew, and what profit is there in circumcision? Much every way; chiefly because that unto them were committed the oracles of God.” The Church of the living God, says the apostle, is the pillar and the ground of the truth. As the pillars and the foundation support the building which rests upon them, the Church, which is founded upon a rock, is, under her exalted Head, the support of the truth upon the earth. And in the faithful preservation of the lively oracles, in diffusing the knowledge of them throughout the world, and in exemplifying the excellency and the purity of the truth in the lives of her members, the Church performs her appropriate office as the light of the world. In the midst of surrounding darkness, it is her province to hold forth the word of life to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints, and to teach men to observe all things whatsoever Christ has commanded.
But how shall the Church, in her official capacity, as faithful witness, display a banner for the truth? How shall she blow the trumpet, in guarding the truth, so that it shall not give an uncertain sound? Is nothing more necessary than that she should simply bear testimony to the general truth that the Bible is the word of God? Will she have performed her duty by making an open declaration of her faith in all that is taught in the Sacred Scriptures? All this would not amount to an explicit testimony in behalf of the truth; because the same profession is made by those who preach another gospel and teach for doctrines the commandments of men. As a faithful witness for the truth, something more definite and intelligible is necessary than simply a profession of her faith in the Sacred Scriptures as the word of God. In order that she may bear a distinct and faithful testimony in behalf of the truth of God, the Church must explain the sense in which she understands the great truths of revelation: she must exhibit in her own language a plain and explicit statement of the doctrines of the Bible. Unless this is done, the Church, as the depository of the truth, cannot cause her light to shine, nor, in so far as her office as a witness for the truth is concerned, can it be known what is the faith which was once delivered to the saints, the profession of which we are required to hold fast.
3. Without multiplying reasons, I observe, in the last place, that, as a means of preserving the purity of the Church, a creed is indispensably necessary. To secure the presence and blessing of the King of Zion in his Church, the preservation of her purity is a matter of the first importance. “If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.” He who walketh in the midst of the golden candle-sticks prefers the charge against the Church in Pergamos, that there were in her communion those who held “the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumbling-block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication;” and also others who held the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, which thing, saith he who “hath the sharp sword with two edges,” “I hate.” It is the appointment of God that men should be made holy in the Church on earth, preparatory to their admission into the sanctuary above. And the truth as in Jesus is the spiritual aliment from which the babe in Christ derives nourishment, and grows up to the stature of a perfect man. Hence, says the apostle, “As new-born babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby.” And the prayer of our Lord in behalf of his followers is, “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.”
Between purity of doctrine and holiness of life there is an intimate connection. And between the “wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ,” which constitute the “doctrine which is according to godliness,” and those “profane and vain babblings which will increase unto men ungodliness,” there is an essential difference. And, therefore, to maintain her purity, and thus to secure the gracious presence and approbation of her divine Head, it is the duty of the Church to see that those whom she admits to her fellowship receive and hold fast the doctrines which are “wholesome,” being adapted to promote the life and health of the soul; and that they reject and avoid those doctrines which “will increase unto more ungodliness.”
But how is the Church to discharge this duty so as to preserve her purity? Is nothing more necessary than simply to require of those whom she receives into her fellowship that they profess their faith in all the doctrines contained in the Bible? Such a profession will be made by those who hold doctrinal views directly antagonistic to each other. Arminians, Arians, Socinians, Universalists, however they may differ among themselves, and however their various systems may differ from the law and the testimony, yet all unite in professing their faith in all the doctrines of the Bible. Consequently, to ascertain whether an individual is sound in the faith, it is necessary to have from him not only a profession of his faith in the Sacred Scriptures generally, but also to know how he understands the great doctrines of the Bible.
Hence the necessity for a creed as a means of preserving the Church from the contamination of error. The Church must exhibit in her own language, in a plain, intelligible manner, a summary of what she understands to be the great doctrines of the Bible. This creed, which contains her testimony to the truth as in Jesus, she presents to those who desire to enjoy her fellowship. If they are prepared to unite with her in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel, she makes them welcome to come and go with her in the journey to that good land of which the Lord hath said, I will give it you. But if, on the other hand, they are not willing to unite with her in professing and maintaining the truth, fidelity to her exalted King requires that she should close the door of her fellowship against them. How can two walk together, except they be agreed?
Thus, by preparing a creed in which there is an exhibition of a faithful testimony in behalf of the truth and in opposition to error, and by requiring of all who desire to enter into her fellowship the adoption of this form of sound words and practical conformity to it, the purity of the Church will be secured; and in no other way can the Church be effectually preserved from the contaminating influence of those doctrines which are not according to godliness. Practical conformity to the creed of the Church must be required as the condition of membership. It professes to contain a summary exhibition of that system of faith which was once delivered to the saints, which the Church must hold fast and for which it is her duty to contend earnestly; and, consequently, unless it is sacredly adhered to as the rule according to which the faith and practice of her members are to be regulated, it must utterly fail to accomplish the end for which it is intended. Its utility as the means of securing co-operation in advancing the interests of the Redeemer’s kingdom, its value as a testimony for the truth, and its efficacy in preserving the purity of the Church, will depend upon its faithful application. Let us, then, hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering.
OBJECTIONS TO CREEDS CONSIDERED.
Having seen that a creed is necessary for the purpose of securing that harmony and co-operation among the members of the Church without which the great object of her organization cannot be accomplished,—necessary in the discharge of her duty as a witness for the truth, and necessary as the means of maintaining and promoting her purity,—it is now proposed to notice briefly some of the more common objections which are urged against the utility of creeds.
1. It is objected that in the adoption of a creed we offer an indignity to the Bible, and set up a human composition in competition with the word of God. This objection is founded upon a false assumption. It proceeds upon the supposition that the creed claims the right to determine what is truth independent of the authority of the Bible, and that it demands that deference to its decisions which is due to the word of God alone. But so destitute of any foundation is this assumption, that the creed honours the Bible as the source of all its knowledge, and the fountain from which it derives not only all its authority, but its very existence. The creed claims no independent authority, but takes its seat at the feet of the Bible, and, with the docility of a little child, learns from it what it should believe. It does not venture to take one step in the discharge of its duty, whether in the reception of truth, or in the rejection of error, without the direction of its infallible guide. As a dutiful child honours and obeys its parent, so the creed acknowledges the authority of the Bible in all things, and yields a willing obedience to all its commands. So far, therefore, is the creed from setting itself up in competition with the Bible, or from offering any thing like disrespect to the word of God, that it yields to it the highest possible homage.
2. It is objected, in the next place, that to require of the members of the Church the adoption of a creed is to interfere with the rights of conscience, and to take away human liberty. “What authority,” exclaims the objector, “has any man, or any combination of men, to dictate to me what I shall believe? In relation to matters which pertain to the glory of God, and my own eternal interests, I bow to no human authority.”
If the creed of the Church were imposed upon men by authority, and they were required to receive it whether they approved of it or not, there would be some foundation for this objection. But no advocate of creeds or confessions of faith pleads for such imposition; nor, in a country where civil and religious liberty is enjoyed, can such authority be exercised. The adoption of the creed is, on the part of every individual, a voluntary act, and no one is required to receive it unless he approves of it. The church, in the discharge of her duty as a faithful witness for the truth, prepares her creed, in which she exhibits in plain and intelligible language what she understands to be the teaching of the Bible on the great subjects of revelation. This summary of doctrine contains what she regards as an outline of that system of faith which was once delivered to the saints, and which she is bound to receive and hold fast, and for which she is required to contend earnestly. When an individual desires to enjoy her fellowship and cast in his lot with her, it is necessary that she should know that his views of divine truth are in accordance with her own; for how can two walk together except they be agreed? To obtain the necessary assurance on this subject, she presents to him her creed, and says, “This formula of doctrine contains a summary of what I understand to be the truth as revealed in the word of God. This truth has been committed to me as a sacred deposit; and, being persuaded that this form of sound words is in accordance with the law and the testimony, I have embraced it, and, with the help of God, am resolved to maintain, defend and propagate it. If you can cordially embrace it and co-operate with me in maintaining and defending it, the door of admission is open, and you shall be welcome to the enjoyment of Christian fellowship.”
It is, then, perfectly evident that there is no infringement upon any man’s liberty, but every one is left at liberty to act for himself. If the creed is accepted, it is the individual’s own voluntary act, and on the part of the Church, there is no interference with the rights of conscience.
And, on the other hand, if the creed is not received, it is the free act of him who is unwilling to subscribe to it; and on himself, not on the Church, lies the responsibility of rejecting it. And in rejecting the creed of the Church he makes it evident that he is not prepared to stand fast in one mind with her, striving together for the faith of the gospel. The consequence is, the door of Christian fellowship is closed against him. And in denying to such the enjoyment of her fellowship the Church interferes with no man’s conscience, but simply exercises a right which is common to all associations of men,—the right of self-preservation. All societies, whatever may be the purpose for which they are formed, have their constitution, or creed, which contains a summary of the principles by which their members are to be governed. And before an individual can be received into the society and enjoy its privileges, he is required to subscribe its constitution. In common with all other societies, the Church exercises the same right. She requires of those who desire to become members and enjoy the privilege of fellowship with her that they signify their acceptance of her creed. If you deny to the Church the exercise of this right, you take from her the power of self-preservation, and subject her to the influence of those who would destroy her peace and paralyze her efforts to defend and propagate the truth. It thus appears that in preparing a creed, as her testimony in behalf of the truth, and a summary of the principles by which she is to be governed, and in requiring of those who desire to enjoy her fellowship that they subscribe this creed, the Church simply exercises a right which is common to all societies, while there is no infringement on the rights of others.
3. The only remaining objection which it seems necessary that I should notice is that creeds have proved a failure,—they have not been effectual in securing the unity and purity of the Church, but error and division continue to prevail; and therefore they are useless. It will be admitted that creeds have not accomplished all that could be desired. This failure, however, may result either from that imperfection which belongs to them in common with all human productions, or from the unfaithful manner in which they are administered, or from both these causes. But though creeds may not have accomplished every thing for which they are designed,—though they may not have succeeded in completely banishing error from the Church and in securing entire unity among the followers of Christ,—they may, nevertheless, have done much to arrest the progress of error and to promote the triumph of truth. May not a remedy be valuable, and, in many cases, efficacious, though it may not be effectual in the removal of every disease? We have men skilled in the healing art, and we have valuable medicines, and yet various diseases prevail. Shall we, then, discard the physician, and reject all medicines as useless? The gospel is the means ordained of Heaven for the purpose of turning sinners from darkness unto light, and from the power of Satan unto God. And yet wickedness abounds; multitudes continue to close their ears against the proclamation of mercy; and the faithful heralds of the cross are in many instances left to mourn over their want of success, and, in the bitterness of grief, to complain, “Who hath believed our report, and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?” Shall we, then, say that God’s ordinance has proved a failure, and that the preaching of the gospel is useless? No one who is concerned in the present discussion would say that, because the gospel has not completely banished sin from the world and brought all men to submit to the yoke of Christ, therefore the preaching of Christ crucified is useless and should be abandoned. Though in the estimation of the wisdom of this world the preaching of the cross is regarded as foolishness, it is nevertheless the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth. While, therefore, it is conceded that the preaching of the gospel has not accomplished all that could be desired in improving the moral condition of the world, still it is the ordinance which the wisdom of God has appointed for the purpose of turning sinners from darkness unto light, and it has accomplished much in every land where it has been proclaimed. That divisions continue to some extent to prevail in the Church and that error in various forms is still propagated, cannot be denied. But the existence of these evils no more proves that creeds are useless than the prevalence of unbelief in the world proves that the gospel is a failure. Creeds may be productive of much good, though they may not avail for the removal of every evil. Let the creed of the Church be framed in strict accordance with the word of God, let it exhibit plainly and intelligibly the truth as in Jesus, let it be honestly embraced and faithfully administered, and it cannot fail to secure in a good degree the important ends for which it is intended. But if those who are admitted into the fellowship of the Church do not in good faith receive the doctrines of her creed; if the Church, through her ministry, does not faithfully teach the truth which she professes to hold; and if, in the exercise of her authority, she does not enforce the observance of her form of sound words, of course her creed will be of no practical utility. But this failure to accomplish an important purpose is not chargeable upon the principle which pleads for the adoption of a creed, but upon the unfaithfulness of the Church in the performance of her appropriate duty.
From what has been said, it appears that to answer the end of her organization the Church must have her creed; she must present to the view of the world in plain and intelligible language, a summary of the doctrine of the apostles, which has been committed to her as a sacred deposit, which she is bound to hold fast, to exemplify in the lives of her members, and to propagate throughout the world. And when an individual desires to enjoy her fellowship, she requires of him that he unite with her in the profession of the faith and subjection to her authority.
We are now prepared to consider more particularly the subject of Church Fellowship.
In accomplishing the purpose of his grace in the salvation of fallen man, the infinitely wise God has been pleased to establish on earth a society distinct from the world which lieth in wickedness, which sustains to himself a peculiar relation, and which is denominated the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. This society, which though in the world is not of the world, has had an existence ever since the first revelation of a Saviour to our apostate race. Under the former dispensation, however, this Church existed in a state of minority,—in a state analogous to that of an heir who is yet a child, and who differeth nothing from a servant, though he be Lord of all, but is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father. “Even so we,” says the apostle, speaking of the condition of believers previous to the coming of Christ, “when we were children were in bondage under the elements of the world.” When Christ appeared in the flesh, he did not establish a new Church, but greatly enlarged the privileges of the existing Church; so that she who had formerly existed in the condition of a minor was now advanced to a state of majority. “When the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.” (Gal. 4:3.)
The Church may be contemplated under a twofold aspect,—as visible or invisible. The Church invisible is composed of those only who are of the election of grace, and is thus denominated, not because the members of it are invisible, but because the evidences of an individual’s connection with it are spiritual, and not discernible with certainty by man,—being known only to Him who looketh upon the heart and knows what is in man. Of this Church it is said, “Christ loved the Church and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious Church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.” (Eph. 5:25-27.) The visible Church comprehends all who profess, the true religion, together with their children, wherever they are found, scattered throughout the world, among the people of every kindred and tongue and nation. The members of this Church, wherever they exist, and however they may be locally separated from each other, form one body, all united one to another and to the Lord Jesus Christ their common Head. To illustrate the union which exists among all the members of the Church, and their joint relation to Christ their living Head, the Sacred Scriptures employ the similitude of the human body. “As we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another.” (Rom. 12:4,5.) As all the different members of which the human body is composed are joined together in such a manner that they constitute one body, in the same manner the various disciples of Christ, dispersed throughout the world, form one spiritual body in connection with Him who is their divine Head. “Now,” says the apostle, “ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.” (1 Cor. 12:27.)
Since all the different members of the household of faith constitute one body, it results that they have communion with each other. Union is the foundation of communion. The parties in question being so united that they become one body, have a mutual interest in each other, and, consequently, have fellowship one with another. On the ground of that spiritual union which subsists between Christ and believers, they have communion with each other. “Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” Between them there exists a common interest. He is interested in them as the objects of his redeeming love and the subjects of his sanctifying grace; and they are interested in him as their Lord and Saviour. “All saints that are united to Christ their Head by his Spirit and by faith have fellowship with him in his graces, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory.” “And being united to each other as members of one body, they have communion in each others’ gifts and graces, and are obligated to the performance of such duties, public and private, as do conduce to their mutual good, both in the inward and outward man.” [Confession, ch. 26, sec. 1,2.] As in the human body there is a mutual sympathy among the members, so that when one member suffers all the members suffer with it, and when one member is honoured all the members rejoice with it, so among those who constitute the body of Christ there should be the exercise of a similar sympathy.
As the professed followers of Christ constitute one body, they are under obligations to manifest their unity by maintaining “a holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God and in performing such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification.” And there would be no difficulty in discharging this obligation were all the professed followers of Christ united in their views of truth and duty. But, unhappily, the Church at present exists in a divided state, one portion of the household of faith differing from another, to a greater or less extent, with regard to what is comprehended in the faith which was once delivered to the saints, and for which all are bound to contend earnestly,—one professing, contending for, and endeavouring to propagate doctrines which another rejects and feels obligated to oppose. This diversity of views among the various portions of the household of faith has given rise to different denominations in the Christian Church, each one having its own distinctive creed or formula of faith. And it becomes a practical question of no little importance, and of some difficulty, To what extent may communion in the observance of Christian ordinances prevail among the professed followers of Christ, in the present divided condition of the visible Church?
In preparing the way for a satisfactory answer to this inquiry, it may be proper to notice a distinction between what may be termed, in a general sense, Christian communion, and ecclesiastical communion, not as opposed to it, but as distinguished from it. As has already been observed, all Christians form one body, of which Christ is the Head. On the ground of this union, they can hold communion with each other, as they have opportunity, in all the exercises of religious worship in which they are agreed. They can hold communion in reading and in hearing the word of God, in prayer and in praise, and in such like devotional exercises. This may be termed Christian communion, or the “communion of saints,” and it may be enjoyed between those who are in connection with different ecclesiastical organizations, and even between those who are not in formal connection with any portion of the visible Church. This communion is founded on union in the common Christianity.
But there are ordinances of religious worship which are administered by the Church in her official capacity, and in the participation of which we can have fellowship one with another only through the medium of the Church as the organ of administration. Such are the ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. And in the observance of these ordinances we hold what may be termed by way of distinction, ecclesiastical or organic communion with one another; since this fellowship can be enjoyed only in connection with the Church. And our present inquiry has reference to the propriety of ecclesiastical communion between different portions of the household of faith so long as the Church remains in a divided state. As union is the basis of communion, ought not ecclesiastical union in all ordinary cases to precede ecclesiastical communion?
The conflicting views which prevail in relation to what I have termed ecclesiastical communion may all be classed under two general heads. According to one theory, the Church should receive into her fellowship all of every denomination who in the judgment of charity are to be considered Christian regardless of any difference of opinion in relation to matters not essential to salvation; while the other maintains that the Church cannot, without betraying her trust, receive into her communion those who are unwilling to receive her testimony for the truth and refuse to submit to her authority.
I. In opposition to the theory which pleads for communion between bodies which are ecclesiastically separated from each other, I observe that such communion is inconsistent with the principles on which distinct ecclesiastical organizations are established. Why, I would ask, is it necessary that distinct organizations should exist in the Church? It is because the persons who compose one organization consider it their duty to profess and maintain certain principles which are rejected by another. And, in order that they may bear a faithful testimony for the truth and in opposition to error, it becomes necessary to withdraw from the jurisdiction of those who are supposed to be unfaithful in maintaining the cause of truth. Why, for example, is it necessary that a Presbyterian organization should exist as a distinct body? It is because those who compose it believe that the Presbyterian form of Church government is divinely appointed, and that it is their duty to maintain it. And, therefore, for the support of the truth they associate under this organization as distinct from those who profess and adhere to a different form. And so of other differences which exist in the Church. When a difference of views in relation to matters of truth and duty of such importance exists as requires one class of persons to testify against the principles which are avowed and propagated by another, a separate organization becomes necessary. And so long as this distinct organization is maintained, there exists a bar in the way of intercommunion. If there is nothing to prevent joint fellowship between the parties, their distinct and separate organizations are schismatical and should be abandoned. And thus all difficulty in the way of harmonious fellowship among the members of the household of faith would be removed.
It may be proper here to remark that the Sacred Scriptures nowhere recognize any such thing in the Church as a separate communion, or one portion of the Church existing in a state of separation from the fellowship of another. And this results from the fact that the Bible always contemplates the Church of God as one, and recognizes no such thing as a divided Church. In apostolic days, the Church was one in doctrine, worship, and government, and one in her communion. In the present state of imperfection, there will always exist some diversity of opinion among the members of the Church. And it was so in the days of the apostles; but no particular Church was then established for the purpose of maintaining one system of doctrine, worship, and government in opposition to another. Churches were established in different cities and in different countries; but no one Church was organized on a different basis from another, but in every place it was the same Church, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, having one Lord, one faith, one baptism. And, consequently, there was no difficulty in the way of communion among the members of the Christian Church throughout the world, whenever, in the providence of God, they had the opportunity of meeting together.
But since the days of the apostles, the Church no longer enjoying the privilege of being under the direction of inspired leaders, a very different state of things has existed. Instead of one united body, presenting an unbroken front in opposition to the kingdom of darkness, the Church is now divided into sects, and exhibits to the view of the world, in some degree, the appearance of different armies arrayed against each other.
This is a state of things unnatural and in every respect improper. It is the result of the imperfection of our knowledge and the remaining depravity of our nature. It is just as inconsistent with the nature and design of the Christian Church that divisions should exist among her members as that the members of the human body should be divided one from another. Where these divisions exist, there must be something wrong. They originate in some sinful cause. And it is the duty of all who love Zion and her peace to endeavour to have this cause removed. But how is it to be removed? Will these divisions, which have their origin in conflicting views in relation to the truth, be removed by assembling at the communion-table all the different portions of the Christian Church, regardless of their discordant views? This might present the appearance of unity; but, while they continue distinct organizations and maintain antagonistic views of truth, the appearance would be false, and the Church, instead of being the city of truth, unity, and peace, would be converted into a Babel. Let error, which is the cause of division, be removed, and then, as the natural result, division will cease. It is the unquestionable duty of every member of the Church to search the Scriptures and make himself acquainted with the truth, and, in his proper place and in an appropriate manner, to contend earnestly for the faith which was once delivered to the saints. And that which is the duty of each individual is in a still higher sense obligatory upon the Church in her organized capacity.
But what is the faith which has been delivered to the saints by the great Prophet of the Church, and for which it is her duty to contend earnestly? To this it may be replied that it is that system of truth revealed in the lively oracles. This answer is true, but it is by no means definite or satisfactory. It would still remain a question, What is the system of truth unfolded to us in the Sacred Scriptures? Among those who professedly receive the Bible as a revelation from God, it is interpreted very differently; and hence one esteems as precious truth that which another regards as pernicious error, while all agree in making their appeal to it in support of their peculiar views. In order, therefore, that the profession which the Church makes may be intelligible, she must not only declare her adherence to all the doctrines revealed in the Bible as the infallible rule of faith and practice, but must, moreover, exhibit in plain and intelligible language what she understands to be the great truths contained in that revelation. In other words, the Church must have her creed. She must exhibit in her own language a summary of what she understands to be the faith which was once delivered to the saints. Unless this is done, the Church cannot fulfil her mission as the light of the world; in no other way can she perform her appropriate office as a faithful witness for the truth. As already observed, in consequence of the imperfection of our knowledge and the corruption of our nature, men will differ in their interpretation of the doctrines which are taught in the Bible, and hence arises a diversity of creeds, and, in connection with this, a diversity of sects or denominations, in the visible Church, adhering to these different creeds. As the Scriptures teach what we are to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of man, we are accountable to God both for our faith and for our practice. And it is the duty of every individual to search the Scriptures, and to embrace that form of sound words which in his judgment is most conformable to the law and the testimony. And when an individual makes a Christian profession, signifying his approbation of that formula of faith which the Church has adopted, which profession is accompanied with a holy life, he is received into Christian fellowship, and is made welcome to the enjoyment of all the privileges of the household of faith. Before an individual can become a member of any association formed among men and enjoy its privileges, for whatever purpose it may be organized, he is required to adopt its constitution and submit to the rules and regulations by which it is governed. The Church has a system of laws given to her by her divine King for the regulation of the faith and life of her members, a summary of which each particular Church exhibits in her creed. And if a particular portion of the Christian Church has a right to exist as a distinct organization, it is her duty to require of all who desire to enjoy her fellowship that they unite with her in the reception of her testimony for the truth and in subjection to her authority. And where an individual refuses to comply with this condition, he can no more claim a right to the distinguishing privileges of the Church than a man can demand to be received into a society while he is unwilling to subscribe to its constitution and submit to its laws. Such, then, is the condition of things, that while the Church of God is one, at present, in consequence of human imperfection, she exists in a divided state. The existence of such a state is inconsistent with the nature and design of the Christian Church. But it does exist, and our duty must be determined with reference to her actual condition. A separate communion ought not to exist in the household of faith; but this is the result of a previously existing evil, which must first be removed, and then the latter, as a matter of course, will cease to exist. Why does division in the Church become a necessity? What gives rise to a separate and distinct organization in the Church? It is the existence of what is regarded as error among those who are professedly the disciples of Christ. To act the part of faithful witnesses for Christ, it becomes necessary that the advocates of the truth should unite in its defence and withdraw from ecclesiastical connection with those who will not co-operate with us in its support. And having associated together under a creed containing a summary of what we regard as the faith for which we are bound to contend, if we would act consistently with the design of our separate organization, we must require of those who desire to enjoy ecclesiastical fellowship with us the acceptance of our testimony for the truth. Not to do this would be virtually to admit that our separate organization is unwarrantable, and that we are schismatical in remaining a distinct body in the household of faith.
It thus appears that intercommunion between bodies in a state of ecclesiastical separation from each other, in the observance of those ordinances which distinguish the Church from the world, is inconsistent with the object and design of a distinct ecclesiastical organization. If there is no cause why intercommunion should not exist between the parties, there is no reason which will justify them in remaining in a state of ecclesiastical separation; and, consequently, the continuance of separation must involve the guilt of schism.
II. In the next place, it is maintained that intercommunion with those from whom we are ecclesiastically separated is inconsistent with the obligations which rest upon the Church as ordained to be a faithful witness of God. The Church, under her exalted King, is the light of the world. And the duty of the Church,—
1. In the first place, is to let her light shine by teaching faithfully the whole truth of God as revealed in the lively oracles. The command of the King of Zion, given originally to the apostles and through them to the Church of God, is, “Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” (Matt. 28:19,20.) Those whom the Church receives to her baptism and to the enjoyment of her fellowship must be taught to observe not merely some things, but all things whatsoever Christ has commanded. In her confession of faith, the Church has given a summary exhibition of what she believes to be the truth which Christ has commanded her to teach; and, in her official capacity, her teaching, as a faithful witness, must correspond with this standard.
On this subject the apostolic example is recorded for the instruction of the Church. On the day of Pentecost the Apostle Peter preached the gospel to the assembled multitude, and unfolded to their view the way of pardon and acceptance with God through a crucified Saviour. “And with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward generation.” And, after his hearers had been taught by the apostle to observe all things that Christ had commanded, they made a profession of their faith, and were received into the fellowship of the Church. “Then they that gladly received his word were baptized, and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued steadfastly in the apostle’s doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” (Acts 2:41.) It thus appears that they who were received by the apostles into the fellowship of the Church were, in the first place, instructed in the knowledge of the truth, and then “gladly received the word” or, in other words, they united with the Church in her profession of the faith, as a prerequisite to the enjoyment of her fellowship.
2. But not only is the Church required to teach those whom she receives into her fellowship all that Christ has revealed in his word; it is, moreover, requisite that, in the exercise of that authority with which she is clothed, she should enforce the observance of all that Christ has commanded. Unto the Church on earth her Lord and King has committed the keys of the kingdom of heaven. “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 16:19; 18:18.) This authority, with which the Church is clothed by her divine Head, is exercised, through the medium of divinely-appointed officers, over those who are of the household of faith. It is her prerogative to open the door of the kingdom of heaven—the visible Church—for the admission of those who comply with the laws of the kingdom, and to close it against those who are not willing to submit to the authority of the King of Zion.
In the discharge of her duty, then, as a teacher, the Church may not hold back any part of the counsel God,—she may not be silent in relation to any one truth which the God of the Bible has made known to her, however unimportant in the estimation of human wisdom it may be supposed to be; but she must teach faithfully all who are under her control to believe and to observe all things whatsoever Christ has commanded. And the Church is just as truly responsible to her exalted King for her fidelity in ruling as in teaching,—in enforcing the laws of Christ’s house as in giving instruction “in the doctrine of the apostles.” She has no more right to receive into her fellowship one who rejects the truth or refuses to observe any thing which Christ has commanded than she has to disregard the authority of her Lord “in teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.”
What, then, do you ask, should the Church say to those who desire to be admitted to her communion? In reply, she should say to every one who would enjoy her fellowship, as Philip said to the eunuch when he expressed a desire to be received into the household of faith, “If thou believest with all thy heart, thou mayest.” (Acts 8:37.) Philip had preached unto him Jesus,—had unfolded to his view the plan of salvation,—had instructed him in relation to the way of pardon and acceptance with God through a Mediator. In a word, he had instructed the eunuch in relation to the obligation resting upon him to observe all things whatsoever Christ had commanded. And the eunuch, like the converts on the day of Pentecost, having “gladly received the word,” on the profession of his faith, was admitted to the enjoyment of the privileges of the Church. Now, what the Church believes to be a summary of “the doctrine of the apostles,” and what she considers herself bound to teach, is comprehended in her creed. And hence the approbation of that formula of faith which she has adopted must be required of those who are received into her fellowship.
And here lies the difficulty in the way of intercommunion between bodies which are ecclesiastically separated from each other, having adopted creeds more or less antagonistic to each other. The confession of faith adopted by each Church contains a summary of what, in her judgment, is the faith which was once delivered to the saints,—a concise formula of those things which Christ has commanded, and which she is required to teach all men to observe. It is to be supposed that, in some important respects, these creeds differ. For if they do not, as has already been observed, there is no reason they should be distinct organizations; and, under such circumstances, to keep up distinct organizations and perpetuate divisions in the body of Christ would involve the guilt of schism. Now, here is an individual who refuses to subscribe to that form of sound words which the Church has adopted; and not only so, but testifies against it, by professing adherence to another which is in some degree antagonistic to it. He closes his ear against what she is bound to teach, and disowns her authority by refusing to observe all things whatsoever Christ has commanded. Under these circumstances, to open to him the door of the kingdom of heaven and receive him into her fellowship would be to render herself liable to the charge of unfaithfulness to Him who requires her to declare the whole counsel of God, and, by the exercise of her authority, to enforce the observance of all things whatsoever Christ has commanded. Admit that Christ, as the Prophet of the Church, has given to her, as a sacred deposit, the oracles of truth,—that, by divine appointment, she is the pillar and ground of the truth,—and that she is bound to contend earnestly for the faith which was once delivered to the saints,—and it follows as a necessary conclusion that she cannot discharge the obligations resting upon her unless she teaches men faithfully to observe all things whatsoever Christ has commanded. And if the King of Zion has established laws for the government of his Church, and has clothed her with authority to execute those laws for the benefit of the household of faith,—if, in a word, Christ has committed to his Church the keys of the kingdom of heaven,—fidelity to her Lord and King requires her to close the door of her fellowship against those who refuse to believe and observe what he has commanded her to each. And as her creed is supposed to be a faithful exhibition of what she believes to be the doctrine of the apostles, which she is under obligations to teach, a refusal on the part of an individual to subscribe this formula of faith is to be regarded as evidence that he is not prepared to walk with her in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless, and, consequently, has no right to be received into her fellowship.
But perhaps it will be objected that on this principle the Church may exclude from her fellowship one who is really united to the Lord Jesus and has communion with him, and, therefore, cannot be unworthy of the fellowship of the Church. The individual in question, it is admitted, rejects some of the doctrines of the creed; yet it is maintained that he holds all that are essential to salvation and, therefore, forbearance should be exercised, regardless of his erroneous views in relation to matters of minor importance. To this objection I would reply:—
1. It is founded upon a mistaken view of the ground of admission to membership in the Church; and it confounds the distinction between the visible and the invisible Church. A person may be a member of the Church invisible,—that is, he may be a true believer, and, therefore, united to Christ,—and yet may be justly excluded from the communion of the visible Church. A child of God, like David and others of whom we have the mournful record in the Bible, may fall into sin, which brings reproach upon the cause of Christ. This sin will subject him to the displeasure of his heavenly Father; but it does not dissolve his connection with the Church invisible, though it is a proper ground of exclusion from the communion of the visible Church until he give satisfactory evidence of penitence and reformation. All true believers, whatever imperfections may cleave to them, whether with regard to their faith or practice, are united to Christ, have fellowship with him, and are, therefore, members of the Church invisible. But it is not the prerogative of the Church, through her officers, to search the heart and determine whether the man is in reality a child of God. This is a matter which can be determined with certainty by Him only who knows what is in man. The Church forms her estimate of human character in the light of external evidence. And in receiving one into her fellowship, she should have such evidence as corresponds with the Christian character, and which, therefore, justifies her in regarding him as a true disciple. But whether he is in reality what he professes to be, it is not the province of the Church to determine. And, consequently, the condition on which the Church receives a person into her fellowship is not that he is certainly a Christian, which is a matter that she is not competent to decide, but that he makes a credible profession, and, therefore, in the sight of man, who looketh upon the outward appearance has a right to be regarded as a brother belonging to the household of faith. Whether the profession which he makes is such as corresponds with the requirements of Christianity, and whether his external deportment is such as becometh the gospel, the Church is competent to decide. All this is within the limits of her legitimate province. And, having satisfactory evidence on these points, she receives him into her fellowship, without presuming to determine what is the state of his heart in the sight of God.
Such is the principle on which the Church acted in primitive days. “Philip,” the sacred historian informs us, “went down to the city of Samaria and preached Christ unto them.” And under the proclamation of the gospel the mind and feelings of Simon the sorcerer were so impressed that he professedly embraced Christianity. On the ground of this profession Simon was received into the fellowship of the Church. But it was afterwards made manifest that his profession was insincere, that his heart was not right in the sight of God, and that he was yet in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity. The ground, therefore, on which Philip received Simon into the communion of the Church was not that he was a true believer, for this he was not,—but because he made a credible Christian profession, which, in the sight of man, gave him the right to be treated as one who belongs to the household of faith.
Since, then, a credible profession is the ground on which an individual has a right, in the sight of the Church, to the enjoyment of her communion, how is this profession to be made, and what is included in it?
To this inquiry I reply, The Church has her creed which contains a summary of the faith which was once delivered to the saints, which, as a faithful witness, she is bound to teach, and for which she is required to contend earnestly. By his professed approbation of this form of sound words, the person makes such a profession as the Church has a right to demand of those who desire to enjoy her fellowship and, this profession being sustained by a consistent deportment, he is to be received as a true disciple, even though it should afterwards appear, as in the case of Simon, that his heart was not right in the sight of God.
But, on the other hand, if he refuses to profess his adherence to that formula of faith which the Church has adopted as her testimony to the truth, he has no right to her fellowship. And in closing the door against him the Church does not presume to sit in judgment upon the condition of his heart in the sight of God and declare that he is not a child of God, which is not her province; but she pronounces judgment upon the character of his profession, and declares it to be unsatisfactory and defective. This the Church is competent to do. And so long as the man refuses to unite with her in professing to receive the summary of the doctrine of the apostles which she has adopted, he fails to make such a profession as she has a right to demand. And loyalty to the King of Zion forbids her to regard him as a disciple who has a claim to her fellowship. What may be the state of the man’s heart in the sight of God, whether he is a true believer or not, the Church does not presume to determine; but she pronounces his profession defective and treats him accordingly.
2. I remark, in the next place, that the objection makes an unwarrantable distinction between the truths revealed in the word of God, practically maintaining that some of them are of such importance that they must be received and held fast, while others are of so little importance that the Church may connive at the rejection of them. The individual in question professes in part his adherence to that system of faith which the Church has adopted as a summary of the doctrine of the apostles, while there are portions of it which he rejects. And the objector contends that he should be received into the fellowship of the Church on the ground of the truth which he professedly receives, and should not be excluded on account of what he rejects, it not being essential to salvation.
To this I reply that there doubtless does exist a distinction between the weightier matters of the law and those which comparatively are not of such high importance; and there are certain great doctrines of Christianity which, owing to the place which they occupy in the Christian system and their extensive bearing upon other truths, are relatively of greater importance than others. But who will presume to determine precisely what doctrines revealed in the Bible are essential to salvation, or what amount of error may consist with the reality of the Christian character? Our obligation to receive the truth does not depend upon the estimate which we may form of its relative importance, but upon the authority of God who has revealed it. And the Church cannot, without rendering herself liable to the charge of unfaithfulness, connive at the rejection of any one truth contained in that revelation of the will of God which has been committed to her care. The command of her exalted King is explicit and peremptory:—“Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” “What things soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto nor diminish from it.” (Deut. 12:32.)
But perhaps some one will object that, according to this theory of communion, many of those who are babes in Christ will be deprived of the privilege of partaking of the holy supper. This ordinance was not only designed for their benefit in common with others, but they have special need of the help which it is adapted to afford as the means of their growth in grace and advancement in the divine life. It is not to be supposed, says the objector, that those who are yet in a state of infancy in the school of Christ can comprehend all the doctrines contained in an elaborate confession of faith, so as to make an intelligent profession of their approbation of them. Must they, therefore, on account of their limited knowledge, be excluded from the fellowship of the Church?
To this I reply that, owing to a variety of excuses, there will exist among the members of the household of faith a great diversity in the degrees of their gracious attainments. And in the treatment of different members this diversity should be taken into the account. And particularly in dealing with those who are babes in Christ, the Church should exemplify the spirit of the compassionate Redeemer, of whom it is said, “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd; he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.” But who are to be regarded by the Church as babes in Christ? Not those who consider themselves wiser than the Church, and persistently reject the truth embraced in her testimony, but such as are sensible of the imperfection of their knowledge, and are willing to confess their ignorance,—such as cherish a humble and teachable spirit, and whose minds are open to receive instruction. Owing to their limited knowledge, they may as yet be unable to give an intelligent assent to some of the more sublime doctrines of the creed; but so long as they keep their minds open to conviction, manifest a disposition to have their difficulties removed and to receive instruction, while, in the mean time, they demean themselves in an orderly and peaceable manner, they should be taken kindly by the hand and assisted and encouraged in their efforts to acquire a knowledge of the truth. Towards them the Church should act the part of a kind and tender-hearted mother.
But the persons against whom the Church should close the door of her fellowship are of a very different character. They have embraced and hold principles which are opposed to the testimony of the Church they claim to have made attainments in knowledge beyond those of the Church whose fellowship they desire to enjoy; and, so far from feeling their need of instruction, they consider themselves competent to instruct others. Such persons are not to be regarded as babes in Christ, and have no claim to the treatment which is due to obedient and dutiful children. They assume the attitude of opposition to that form of sound words which the Church has adopted as her testimony, and they act the part of unruly and disobedient children; and, therefore, it behooves the Church, as a prudent mother, to apply the rod, with a view to their reformation, and deprive them, for the time-being, of the distinguishing privileges of the household of faith.
That persons of this class, who not only refuse to unite with the Church in her testimony for the truth, but openly maintain principles antagonistic to it, should be excluded from her fellowship, I shall now endeavour to show from various declarations of the word of God.
1. To the Roman Christians the apostle gives the following direction:—“Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned, and avoid them.” (Rom. 16:17.) Of the various ways in which divisions are produced in the church, a prominent one is by embracing and propagating erroneous principles, or, as the apostle expresses it, principles “contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned” of us. And the direction which he gives to his Christian brethren is, “Mark those which cause divisions, and avoid them.” Whatever else may be comprehended in this direction, it certainly can be understood to mean nothing less than that such persons should not be retained in the fellowship of the Church. And since they who profess and propagate doctrines inconsistent with the faith which was once delivered to the saints pursue a course the tendency of which is to produce distraction and division in the household of faith, the Church should “mark and avoid them,” and, consequently, have no fellowship with them.
2 Again, in his instructions to the Church in Thessalonica the apostle gives the following direction:—“Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw from every brother that walketh disorderly and not after the tradition which he received of us.” (2 Thess. 3:6.) From the peculiarly solemn manner in which this charge is delivered, it is evident that the duty here inculcated is one of special importance. “We command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The person with regard to whom this charge is given is not “a heathen man, or publican,” but “a brother,”—a brother, however that “walketh disorderly.” And the direction given to the Church is, Withdraw yourselves from such a brother. This evidently supposes that the Church should have no fellowship with him. The person from whom the Church is commanded to withdraw is not said to be an unbeliever: nay, he is supposed to be a Christian brother, but, at the same time, one who is wanting in some of the characteristics of the true disciple. He “walketh disorderly.” The original word here translated “disorderly” is properly a military term, and is applicable to a soldier who breaks the ranks in disregard of the authority of his commander. In application to a Christian disciple, it describes one whose conduct is in some respects irregular, and not in conformity with the laws of Christ’s house,—one who does not faithfully conform to the authority of the Captain of salvation.
Now, by what standard is the Church to determine in any particular case whether an individual walketh disorderly, and, therefore, that she is forbidden to have fellowship with him? There must be some test by the application of which this matter is to be determined; and that test is her creed. In her creed the Church has declared explicitly what, in her judgment, her glorious King has commanded her to teach all men to observe. And he who refuses to unite with her in her testimony to the truth must be regarded by her as walking disorderly and not in due subjection to the authority of her Lord. And let it be particularly observed, in this case, that the individual in question is not supposed to be one who is living in open and flagrant sin nor is he supposed to be chargeable with something that is utterly inconsistent with the Christian character, or that he has embraced some radical error which is subversive of the very foundation of Christianity. No, he is supposed to be a brother. But yet there is something, either in his faith or life, or, it may be, in both, which is so defective that it becomes the duty of the Church to testify against his fault, whatever it may be, by refusing to receive him into her fellowship. And this course is to be pursued with a view to the benefit of the individual himself, as well as out of regard for the authority of the Head of the Church. Accordingly, the apostle adds, “If any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.” (2 Thess. 3:14,15.) And hence it appears, according to the apostle, that the Church, in refusing to receive a person into her fellowship, does not presume to pronounce judgment upon the state of his heart in the sight of God and declare that he has no part in the common salvation, but that he walketh disorderly,—in other words, that there is something either in his principles or conduct which is inconsistent with the Christian character, against which it is her duty to bear testimony. And, therefore, so long as this difficulty remains in the way, the Church may not connive at his irregularity by receiving him into her fellowship. “Withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly and not after the tradition which he received of us.”
The advocates of the theory of catholic communion, which maintains that all evangelical Churches, regardless of any difference of views which may exist with reference to matters not essential to salvation, should unite in the participation of the Lord’s Supper, contend that this is the doctrine of our own Confession of Faith. And they insist that the testimony of the United Presbyterian Church on this subject is in direct conflict with the Confession of Faith. We admit that men, if they choose, can, with some degree of plausibility, so interpret the language of the Confession as to make it yield a seeming support to the doctrine of catholic communion. And in the same way men take advantage of general declarations of Sacred Scripture and interpret the Bible so as to make it give countenance to the most pernicious errors. It is, however, to be supposed that the fathers who prepared and adopted our ecclesiastical standards understood them as well as those who have come after them. And that in adopting these standards they did not profess; the doctrine of catholic communion is evident from their own practice. As honest men, it is to be supposed that their practice was in accordance with their principles; and the fact is notorious that, from the first, their practice was in conformity with the theory of restricted communion. But not only have we the practice of the Church under the direction of the fathers as a guide in the interpretation of our standards: we have their own explicit declaration of their views. In relation to this 26th chapter of our Confession [i.e., Westminster], they declare that “it is understood by them as opposed to the scheme of communion called the Latitudinarian, which unites all parties of professed Christians in the fullest communion, on the footing only of those general principles that some distinguish by the name of essentials.” And they further declare, in relation to this “scheme of communion,” then called “Latitudinarian,” but now more commonly designated “catholic communion,” that is “a scheme which they condemn, as subversive of the design of this and every other stated Confession of Faith, and as having a natural, tendency to promote error and to extinguish zeal for many important truths of the gospel.” And, still further, they explicitly declare that “they do not consider themselves as left at liberty by this part of the Confession to hold organic communion with any denomination of Christians that is inconsistent with a faithful and pointed testimony for any revealed truth respecting doctrine, worship, discipline, and Church government.” In the light, therefore, both of the practice and the explicit statements of the fathers, there can be no doubt in relation to their views on this subject. And is it becoming in men who are of yesterday to say practically that the fathers of our Church did not understand their own standards, and to hold them responsible for a scheme of communion which they expressly repudiate as subversive of the very design of their Confession?
See “Act to Amend the Constitution of the Associate Reformed Church,” A.D. 1790.
But let us examine the language of our Confession, which, it is alleged, clearly teaches the doctrine of catholic communion.
1. And my first remark is, that this chapter of our Confession treats of “the communion of saints,”—not communion in the participation of the Lord’s Supper particularly, but generally of that communion which the members of the household of faith have with each other and with their common Lord. And the doctrine which is here taught is that communion presupposes, and is founded on, union. Between all true believers and the Lord Jesus Christ there exists a spiritual union; and on the ground of this union they have communion with each other. All the saints are united to each other as members of one body, and hence they have fellowship one with another. And we are here taught that “saints by profession”—that is, all who are members of the visible Church—“are bound to maintain a holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God and in performing such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification, as also in relieving each other in outward things according to their several abilities and necessities.” We have here a comprehensive view of that communion which ought to exist among all who are the professed followers of Christ,—communion both in temporal and spiritual things,—both in the exercises of religious worship and in ministering to each other’s temporal necessities. This communion saints by profession are bound to maintain. And were it not that the Church is now in an unnatural and divided state, this communion could be maintained to its fullest extent. But, owing to the present divided condition of the visible Church, there are obstacles in the way of this communion which, to some extent, render it impracticable. For example, where there is a diversity of views in relation to the manner in which God is to be worshipped, where one believes that it is proper to worship God in the use of uninspired songs of praise, while another regards the use of these songs in the worship of God as a corruption of the worship of God, they cannot have fellowship in this part of religious worship. And where men are not agreed in relation to the faith which was once delivered to the saints, and one holds as precious truth a doctrine which another rejects as pernicious error, they cannot hold communion in the profession of the truth. This want of agreement in relation to the truth, however, which constitutes the difficulty in the way of their communion, does not relieve them, as members of the body of Christ, from the obligation to hold fellowship with each other. The obligation still rests upon them, and the difficulty which renders it impracticable to discharge this obligation should be removed. The want of union in the profession of the faith—the want of agreement in relation to what is comprehended in the faith which was once delivered to the saints—constitutes the difficulty in the way of communion. And on those who profess and maintain principles in opposition to what Christ has commanded his Church to teach must rest the blame of causing division in the household of faith and thus interrupting that fellowship which ought to exist among all who are professedly members of the body of Christ.
2. In the next place, I remark that, after describing the communion which saints by profession should maintain with each other, we have a representation of the character of those to whom this communion is to be extended. “Which communion, as God offereth opportunity, is to be extended unto all those who in every place call upon the name of the Lord Jesus.” The phrase “which communion,” according to the laws of language, must be understood as referring to the communion previously described,—communion in spiritual things,—in the worship of God,—which, of course, includes communion in the Lord’s Supper, as well as in other ordinances of religious worship; and also in ministering to each other in temporal things. It is on this clause that they chiefly rely who maintain that our Confession favors the doctrine of catholic communion. But it is their interpretation of this language which makes it support their theory of communion. The language itself says nothing about communion between different ecclesiastical organizations, but simply describes in the language of Scripture the character of those whom the Church should receive into her fellowship. Their character is here described in general terms; they are “all in every place who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus.”
Now, who are to be understood by “all that in everyplace call upon the name of the Lord Jesus’? Is the language to be interpreted in an unqualified sense according to its literal acceptation? Was it designed to comprehend Unitarians, Arians, Universalists, Pelagians, Romanists? It is supposed that no one who is concerned in the present discussion would plead for such an interpretation; and yet of all these it may be said in a general sense that they “call upon the name of the Lord Jesus.”
Men may take advantage of these general terms, as they do of other similar declarations of the word of God, and put upon them an interpretation which may appear somewhat plausible, while it conveys a meaning foreign from the mind of the Spirit.
The expression “all those who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus” is a scriptural description of the members of the Church of Christ, and must be interpreted in the light of Scripture. The language occurs in the apostle’s salutation addressed to the Corinthian Church:—“Unto the Church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor. 1:2.) Here are three distinct forms of expression employed in describing the character of those who belong not to any particular sect, but to the Church of God in Corinth, in Rome, in Ephesus, and in every place where that Church has an existence,—“sanctified in Christ Jesus,” “called to be saints,” “all that call upon the name of Jesus Christ.” Such is the scriptural character of those who compose the Church of God, which is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone; and such are the “saints by profession, who are bound to maintain an holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God, and in performing such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification.”
3. I remark, still further, that there is here no reference to intercommunion between Churches separated from each other by different creeds. Our Confession of Faith, in accordance with the Scriptures, regards the Church of God, wherever it exists, as one; and here we have a description in the language of Scripture of those who compose this one Church. And if the Church was what it ought to be, and what the Scriptures always supposed it to be,—one in the profession of the faith, acknowledging one Lord, one faith, one baptism,—there would be no difficulty among all the professed followers of Christ throughout the world in enjoying a holy fellowship with each other in all the ordinances of religious worship whenever, in the providence of God, they might be brought together. But here lies the difficulty in the way of ecclesiastical or organic communion in the present divided state of the Church. There is now, unhappily, a diversity of sects, each one having its distinctive creed, one being to a greater or less extent antagonistic to another. What, then, are we to understand by the phrase “all that call upon the name of the Lord Jesus”? Surely no one will pretend that it comprehends all who profess the name of Christ, regardless of their views of his person and work and the way of salvation through him. It is a general expression, on which some qualification must evidently be imposed. Whatever else may be comprehended in it, it can signify nothing less than that they are such as make a scriptural profession faith in Christ and worship and serve him accordingly.
But how is the Church to determine whether the individual who desires to enjoy her fellowship does make a scriptural profession such as is required of all who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus? I It is not her province to search the man’s heart and determine what is his condition in the sight of God; but she is competent to form a judgment with regard to the character of his profession. In her Confession of Faith, the Church has declared what she believes to be comprehended in a scriptural profession; and if he is prepared to unite with her in this testimony for the truth, she is bound to welcome him to the enjoyment of her fellowship. But if he rejects her testimony, she is under equal obligations to regard him as one who walketh disorderly, and, therefore, to withdraw from ecclesiastica1 fellowship with him. Can two walk together in fellowship except they be agreed?
In this language of our Confession, then, we have a statement of the general principle by which the Church is to be governed in receiving individuals into her fellowship. The character of the persons to be received is described in the language of Scripture. They are those who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus; they make a scriptural profession of faith in Christ and walk in accordance with it. No matter where they reside or to what country they belong; if, in the providence of God, they have the opportunity of meeting together, it is their duty and their privilege to “maintain an holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God, and in performing such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification.”
As the language of our Confession on the subject of communion, which has been under consideration, is somewhat general in its character, and may, therefore, with some degree of plausibility, be interpreted in different senses, and, in fact, has been explained differently, it was deemed necessary for mutual satisfaction, in the formation of the union which gave rise to the United Presbyterian Church, to give a more distinct deliverance on this subject. Accordingly, in the 16th Article of the Testimony, it is “That the Church should not extend communion in sealing ordinances to those who refuse adherence to her profession or subjection to her government and discipline, or who refuse to forsake a communion which is inconsistent with the profession she makes.” Men may put their own private interpretation upon the language of our Confession, and then say that the article in the Testimony directly contradicts it. We admit that the article in the Testimony does not agree with their explanation; but that it maintains a principle at war with the doctrine of the Confession we deny. Most certainly the framers of the Testimony, and the Church in adopting it, did not intend to introduce among the articles of our faith any doctrine inconsistent with the Confession, but simply to express in a more definite form the truth which is exhibited in a more general and less explicit manner in our Confession. And we who have adopted both these formulas of faith, it is to be supposed, understand what we profess to believe. And most assuredly we never imagined that in receiving the one formula we have professed our faith in any doctrine which is inconsistent with what is taught in the other.
But let us examine a little more particularly this article in our Testimony.
1. And, in the first place, let it be kept in mind that the subject under consideration in the Confession. of Faith is general,—the “communion of saints,”—that communion which Christians may enjoy with each other both in temporal and spiritual things, both in “the worship of God” and in “relieving each other in outward things;” whereas the article in the Testimony has specific reference to “communion in sealing ordinances,” or what we have denominated “ecclesiastical communion.” The language in the one case is, consequently, more general than in the other.
2. In the next place, the article in the Testimony declares that “the Church should not extend her communion in sealing ordinances to those who refuse adherence to her profession or subjection to her government and discipline.” By the “profession” of the Church, to which some are supposed to “refuse adherence,” we are to understand that system of religious truth which she has embraced as the faith which was once delivered to the saints, which she is bound to hold fast and for which she is to contend earnestly. Those, therefore, who “refuse adherence to her profession” must be regarded by Church as refusing to receive, and, consequently, as rejecting, the truth which she is required as a faithful witness to teach all men to receive and observe. In other words, she must regard them in the light of those who do not “call upon the name of Lord Jesus,” in the proper acceptation of that scriptural expression. And to receive them into her fellowship while they refuse adherence to her profession and subjection to her authority would be unfaithfulness to Him whose command is, “Go teach all nations, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.”
3. This article further declares that the Church should not extend her communion to those who “refuse to forsake a communion which is inconsistent with the profession that she makes.” The profession which the Church has made is contained in her creed. In this formula she has exhibited a summary of what she believes to be the faith which was once delivered to the saints. But here is an individual who is associated with a body whose creed is inconsistent with the profession which the Church has made. By identifying himself with that body, and by the adoption of her creed, he must be regarded by the Church as adhering to a system which is to a greater or less extent inconsistent with the cause of truth. And while he remains in such connection and refuses to withdraw, the Church that would be faithful to her Lord must regard him as one who in some respects does not call upon the name of the Lord Jesus in a scriptural manner,—one who in some respects walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition received of the apostles. And, therefore, so long as he chooses to remain in connection with a system of error, the Church may not be a partaker of his sin by receiving him into her fellowship.
The result of our investigation, then, is that we discover no opposition between our Confession of Faith and our Testimony. In the one document there is a more definite and explicit statement of the faith of the Church than in the other; but between them there is entire harmony. Men may put an interpretation upon the language of the Confession to suit their own purpose, and then array this interpretation in opposition to the Testimony. But for their private interpretation the Church is not responsible. The Confession contains a summary exhibition of what is believed to be the faith which was once delivered to the saints, and the Church expects that all who desire to enjoy her fellowship will unite with her in the profession of the faith. And the Testimony declares that she should not extend communion to those who refuse adherence to the profession which she has made.
In conclusion: the United Presbyterian Church cherishes towards her different sisters composing the household of faith feelings of the kindest fraternal regard, and wishes them abundant success in all their works of faith and labours of love. But, since we cannot at present agree in our interpretation of that system of faith which was once delivered to the saints and for which we are required to contend earnestly, and since the United Presbyterian Church finds herself under obligations to profess and propagate certain important truths which are either rejected by her sisters or in relation to which they are silent, it becomes necessary that, in acting the part of a faithful witness for the truth, she should maintain a distinct organization. And so long as there is a necessity for this distinct organization and her sisters cannot unite with her in the profession of the faith and in subjection to the laws of Christ’s house, she cannot see how she can, consistently with her obligations to her exalted Head, receive them to the enjoyment of those privileges which are peculiar to the Church of Christ. In the mean time, it shall be her endeavour, in her sphere, to hold forth the word of life, so that, by the diffusion of the light of truth, the darkness of error may be banished from the Church, and that all who love the common Saviour, being united in the love of the truth, may be prepared to stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel.
In connection with the foregoing remarks, the author takes pleasure in introducing the following extract from Shaw’s Exposition of the 26th Chapter of the Confession of Faith. This excellent exposition has been republished by the Presbyterian Board. It will thus appear that this large and respectable sister Church has recommended to the people under her care this valuable volume, which takes substantially the same view of the subject of Church fellowship for which these pages plead.
“Ministering to the saints is expressly called ‘fellowship.’ (2 Cor. 8:4.) To this kind of communion the concluding sentence of this section of our Confession may, perhaps, more especially refer:—‘Which communion, as God offereth opportunity, is to be extended unto all those who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus.’ This sentence is closely connected with the clause immediately preceding, which relates to ‘relieving each other in outward things;’ and the whole of the Scripture proofs adduced refer either to the Church of Jerusalem, which ‘had all things common,’ or to the saints in one place ‘sending relief’ to those in distant places who were impoverished by persecution. It will be admitted, however, that Christian communion of a more extensive nature, including all those services which tend to mutual edification, ought to be maintained with all that call on the name of the Lord Jesus as opportunity permits; nay, were the visible catholic Church what it ought to be, according to the rule of God’s word, one in profession, the members of this or that particular Church would be entitled to enjoy, and bound to hold, Church communion wherever Providence might order their lot. If professed Christians throughout the world, instead of being divided into diverse and opposing sections, were cemented into one holy brotherhood, then whoever was admitted into the fellowship of the Church in one place would be recognized as a member of the catholic Church, and would be entitled to claim the privilege of communion in any particular Church where his lot was cast. On the other hand, whoever was laid under censure in a particular Church would be considered under the same in all others, and would not be received into communion until the sentence was reversed by the same power, or by a still higher authority. Thus it ought to be; and thus it would be were that unity which should characterize the visible Church fully realized. But in the present state of the Church, divided and subdivided as it is into a number of sections, all of them contending for some peculiar principle or practice which they deem important, and by which they are not only distinguished from, but opposed to, other denominations, such extended Church communion cannot be consistently maintained.”