(Principles of Fellowship—The Ordering of Church Communion)
For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions (i.e., schisms) among you; and I partly believe it. (1 Cor. 11:18)
Question.—Are the governing ends of church fellowship always consistent with the narrow views and wishes of individuals?
Answer.—If Christians view the terms upon which religious society exists a burden, it is to be observed that restrictions appear in every social connection of life, Rom. 14:7. The governing ends and purposes of society daily interfere with the narrow views and wishes of men in every relation, Ps. 68:6. Inflexibility in opinion would ruin every society, 1 Cor. 3:18. Kingdoms and families are ruined by the unyielding attachments of personal views, opinions and desires, and seeking of interests out of the proper channels of order and authority, Prov. 26:12, 21. When the depravity of the human condition is considered, it is not possible that all members of a society are strictly honest and disinterested in their own designs and measures, Phil. 2:21. Even if we, as a grant of charity, suppose that all men were equally sincere and concerned for the interests of the society, we cannot deny that all see but in part, 1 Cor. 13:9, 10.
It is madness to expect, in the present state of corruption, that church members will see eye to eye in every point of truth and duty, Isa. 52:8. Nor is it to be expected that such measures as are requisite for the public good, will not be grievous, in particular instances, to individuals, Eccl. 2:17. Indeed, many of the duties, which are incumbent upon them by divine authority, imply self-denial in reference to their inclination, interest and, even, honor, Tit. 2:12; Matt. 16:24. Now, such self-denying duties suppose that the governing ends of their communion are, in these cases, inconsistent with their wishes, desires, views, opinions and designs, as individuals, Phil. 2:2-4. It is this principle which sets the apostle’s advice and reasoning in the most agreeable light, Rom. 15:1-7.
This also helps us to understand more clearly the action of that first synod at Jerusalem wherein they add to one moral prohibition (of fornication) another three judicial prohibitions (concerning food), Acts 15:20. Very few professing Christians would dare quibble that the prohibition forbidding fornication is clearly moral, 1 Thess. 4:3; yet, the other three are also deemed by that same synod prohibitions of the Holy Spirit and necessary to be observed, Acts 15:28, 29. Does the church have a right to bind men to keep rules which are judicial and not clearly moral? These became binding matters of dogma on the churches, Acts 16:4. Paul’s comments elsewhere help us understand the use of the word necessary (necessity) to all of these things, 1 Cor. 7:26. Paul’s advice did not have the binding authority of a lawful synod but it did represent apostolic judgment in a matter otherwise free, 1 Cor. 7:25, 28. Discipline being a part of the government of the church, what a lawful synod binds on earth is, in fact, to be reckoned as bound in heaven, Matt. 18:18-20. Under this rubric, and in light of the synod of Jerusalem, we conclude the church is empowered to set binding rules of order and regulate the practice of its members with respect to its relation to those outside of the church in order to display its testimony, Isa. 8:16.
Question.—What is the end when church members pursue their own private views, at the expense of the general ends of the religious fellowship?
Answer.—Unless there is the same extensive care one for another, there is schism in the body, 1 Cor. 12:25. How can the case stand in the natural body, if the eye should say to the foot, I have no need of thee, 1 Cor. 12:15, 16? It should be apparent that private views of ease, ambition, interest and pleasure, should only be gratified upon terms that are consistent with public utility, 1 Cor. 14:33. Apart from this principle, it is hard to see how divisions and schisms can be avoided in the church, 1 Cor. 1:10 (except it be upon the rejection of adherence to the truth, which is not a Christian option, cf. Eph. 4:3 with John 15:26). For this reason, love is the bond of that unity, 1 Cor. 13:4-8. People, guided in their religious conduct by narrow and selfish views, thereby hurt the edification of their fellow Christians, they do not follow Paul’s example and walk instead disorderly, Acts 21:24. This failure to exhibit brotherly love fails to secure reciprocal affection from the brethren, and consequently there is envying, strife and every evil work brought in the church, Jas. 3:15, 16. To constitute what Scripture denominates schism does not necessitate a total separation from church communion, rather it is the sin which results from this failure of mutual love, 1 Cor. 11:18.
Question.—Doesn’t this view destroy private judgment? or, at the least, set up public opinion as a test of religious practice?
Answer.—That every man has a right and obligation, even a duty, to be determined concerning doctrinal sentiments, and religious practice, in every point of both, from the oracles ofGod is undoubted, Acts 17:11; Rom. 14:5. However, a right of judging upon these principles is fully consistent with being joined in social ties with other Christians, each of whom have the same right with himself, Eph. 4:16. Nonetheless, this right of private judgment must be used with prudence, it may not occasion offense; for if it produces strifes, contentions and alienations of affection, it destroys all bonds of Christian society, 1 Cor. 8:7-13.
The charge that this sets up public (or ecclesiastical) opinion as a test is countered by several considerations: 1.) We acknowledge the Word of God is the alone infallible rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy God, 2 Tim. 3:16. 2.) The Word of God, in everything relating to church fellowship, addresses us not only as Christians, but as members joined and tied to one society, 1 Cor. 12:12; Col. 3:15. 3.) It is not the public opinion, but the Word of God, which warns us against pursuing the gratification of our private views, at the expense of the general ends of religious fellowship, and this word is the alone infallible rule of religious practice in all the offices of church communion, Rom. 14:1, 14-23.