THE nature, the conveyance, the partition, and exercise of the power, committed by Jesus to these pastors, ruling elders, and deacons, must next be examined. If his kingdom is not of this world, the whole authority pertaining thereto must be, not of a temporal, but spiritual kind (John 18:36). Its rule is not the carnal statutes of men; but the spiritual oracles of the Holy Ghost (1 Tim. 3:14, 15; 2 Tim. 3:15-17). It is not derived from any carnal earthly potentate; but from the quickening Spirit, Jesus Christ the Lord (Mat. 28:18-20; John 20:21-23; Mat. 16:10 and 18:15-20). Its matter is spiritual; the keys, order, and government, not of a carnal and earthly monarchy; but of the kingdom of heaven (Mat. 16:19). The doctrines preached relate not to human science; but are spiritual and divine (2 Pet. 1:19, 20; 2 Tim. 3:16, 17). The sacraments confirm no carnal privileges; but represent, seal, and apply Jesus’ spiritual person, righteousness, and benefits. The discipline is not carnal, affecting the body, purse, or outward privilege; but spiritual, respecting the soul and conscience; whereby the unruly are admonished and rebuked; the obstinate ejected from the spiritual fellowship of saints, and the penitent received to the same (Mat. 16:19 and 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 5:13; 2 Cor. 2:1-7; John 20:21-23). The manner of exercising this power is spiritual; not in the name of a creature; but of Jesus the eternal Spirit, whose kingdom is not of this world (Acts 17:18; Mat. 28:19; 1 Cor. 5:4). In respect of its subject, it is not intrusted to civil and earthly rulers; but to spiritual officers given to the church, by her head (Eph. 4:7-11; Mat. 16:19 and 18:15-20). In respect of its object, it is versant about civil actions, not as political crimes; but as offensive to God, scandalous, and ruining to the souls of men (1 Cor. 5:12, 13; 2 Cor. 10:8). In its scope, this power tends not to increase men’s wealth, or outward honors; but to gain their souls to Christ, destroy their corruption of flesh, and to save their spirit (Eph. 4:11-15; 1 Cor. 5:5).
Is the government of the Christian church, of such a spiritual nature? how wicked then to admit to her offices, these, no way marked with Spirit of Christ! How wicked to pervert her ordinances, ruling her in a political manner; instigated by carnal motives, and according to the edicts of princes, acts of parliament, or inclinations of men! How criminal to dispense her sacred seals to any; to multitudes; destitute of every shadow of spiritual membership, in the mystical body of Christ! How sinful to impose the sacred supper under civil penalties; or to qualify men for offices in the state! What a shocking transformation this, of that kingdom, which is not of this world!
This spiritual power, derived from Jesus, is but of a ministerial, a stewardly kind. In the church, one is our MASTER and LAWGIVER, even Christ. His officers are no more than stewards of the mysteries of God; ministers, preachers, or heralds, and ambassadors for him (Mat. 23:8, 10; Jam. 4:10; 1 Cor. 4:1; Col. 1:7; Rom. 10:14; 2 Cor. 5:19, 20). Not the smallest degree have they of power, to affix a new additional sense to his laws; nor in the most indifferent thing, to establish a new one; but solely to explain and apply his statutes, as the circumstances of his church require. “To his law and to his testimony; if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them (Isa. 8:20).”
The church-officers derive this power from Christ, not through the mediation of saints, magistrates, or diocesan bishops, but immediately from himself, is no less clearly marked in the sacred page. Already it has been illustrated, that neither saints, magistrates, or diocesans, as such, are vested with any ecclesiastic power by Jesus Christ (see Letter 5th, 6th, 7th). They can therefore no more convey it to others, than I can dispone the dukedom of——to my son. In ordinary cases, our adored Redeemer indeed useth the choice of his adult members, to point out the candidate fit to receive church power (see Letter 10th): but the power, the office, he himself conveys. To the saints, the inspired Paul thus addresses himself, Our authority, which the Lord hath given us, for your edification (2 Cor. 10:8). Not any deputed by him, but the Lord himself gives his officers the keys of the kingdom of heaven; the power of church-order and government. Thus he makes them stewards in his house; heralds in his kingdom. It is God that sets them in the church, makes them overseers and rulers over others in the Lord (Mat. 16:19 and 18:18-20 and 28:18-20; John 20:21-23; 1 Cor. 12:28; Acts 20:28; 1 Thes. 5:12). The ministerial power is so far from flowing from the church, that, in part, it is prior to her existence. The apostles were ordained to found New Testament churches, when, and where there was none. Ministers’ business is partly calculated to gather churches out of the world; to call them to Jesus, who are not members of his mystical body (Mat. 16:19 and 28:19, 20; Mark 16:15-20; John 20:21-23). The characters imposed on church-officers confirm this point. They are called ambassadors, preachers or heralds, stewards, rulers over others in the Lord, &c. (Rom. 10:14; 1 Cor. 4:1; 1 Thes. 5:12) Finally, to these officers, not to saints, magistrates, or diocesans, hath Jesus immediately directed the rules of their management; that they judge only of these that are within the church; that they domineer not over the church; that they ordain, lay hands on no man suddenly; do nothing by partiality; that they rebuke scandalous sinners openly, reject obstinate heretics, &c. (1 Cor. 5:12; 1 Pet. 5:3; 1 Tim. 5:20, 21, 22; Tit. 3:10) To them he immediately directs the promises of his special presence, direction, support in their work; and of his ratification of it: and his rewarding them for their faithful discharge of it. To them he immediately directs the threatenings of punishment, for mismanaging it (Mat. 28:20 and 16:19 and 18:15-20; Luke 12:42; Rev. 2:12-20).
But how is this church-power parted, and to be executed? How are these keys of the kingdom of heaven distributed? That of order or knowledge, comprehending the preaching of the gospel, and administration of the sacraments, is allotted only to ministers. They only are the elders who labor in word and doctrine: and to each of them, this power equally pertains, and is to be exercised by him, in his congregation (1 Tim. 5:17). The key of jurisdiction relative to the admission of members, ordination of officers, censuring the unruly, casting out the obstinate, and absolving the penitent, pertaining equally to pastors and ruling elders, is to be exercised in sacred courts, consisting of two or more of these church-rulers, constitute in the name of the Lord Jesus (Mat. 18:18-20; 1 Cor. 5:4; Acts 15).
Were it possible the whole members of the militant church could unite in one congregation, the very light of nature imports, they should have but one judicature over them. But since, continuing one mystical body of Christ, their number and distance enforce their disjunction into various worshipping assemblies; it is requisite they have over them, judicatures, supreme and subordinate; these, to manage their less important affairs; that, to maintain their union, and order their more general and momentous concerns. In three different courts of judgment, it is supposed, church-officers may meet in their Master’s name. In a congregational SESSION, composed of one or more ministers, with ruling elders and deacons. In a classical PRESBYTERY, composed of ministers and elders from several congregations, associate together for mutual rule. And in a SYNOD provincial, national, or general, composed of ministers and elders, from several presbyterial associations. The divine warrant of those courts must be narrowly examined (Mat. 18:18; 1 Tim. 4:14; Acts 15).