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LETTER XIX.-Of Church Fellowship and Separation.


LETTER XIX.-Of Church Fellowship and Separation.

James Dodson

TO maintain the peace, and purity of the church, is to be earnestly intended, by every member thereof. To purchase peace, unity, and mutual affection among his people, the divine Savior laid down his life (Eph. 2:15, 16; Col. 1:20); he pleads it in his unceasing intercession (John 14:27); he promises it in his word (John 17:11, 21, 23); the purchased peace, he bequeathed to his church (Jer. 32:39; Ezek. 11:19 and 37:17). Nothing is more warmly recommended in his oracles, than to exert ourselves, praying for, and every other way promoting the peace of Jerusalem (Rom. 12:9, 10, 16, 18; Heb. 13:1 and 12:14; Rom. 15:1, 6; Eph. 4:2, 3, 31; Psal. 122:6 and 133; Zech. 8:19). Nothing is represented as more plainly hurtful to men, or dishonoring to God, than contention and division in the church (Jam. 3:15, 16; 1 Cor. 3:1; Mark 3:24). It springs from ignorance, selfishness, pride, passion, jealousy, neglect, of important duties, stiff peremptoriness and the like (Rom. 15:1, 2; Prov. 13:10 and 15:8 and 10:12). It marks the anger of the Lord (Lam. 4:16). It eats out the life of religion; produces reviling, confusion, and ever evil work. It murders, it tears asunder, the mystical body of an adored Redeemer, and hinders others to join her; how shocking the crime!

That there may be union and communion, with ministers and Christians, who, in many things not fundamental, differ from us; and who are chargeable with many imperfections, infirmities, and faults, personal; with a church where sundry scandals are not confessed; and where not a few corruptions in doctrine, worship, discipline, and government, are entertained, but not imposed for approbation, the man acquaint with the oracles of God, must readily grant. Many and grievous, were the corruptions at Corinth; Galatia; Pergamos; Thyatira; Sardis; and Laodicea. For these, God sharply rebukes them, in their respective epistles; but, because not obstinate in their evil way; nowhere are the godly among them, advised to withdrawment; but to hold fast the truth they received; and to endeavour the purging out of corruptions (1 Cor. 1:11 and 5:1, 2 and 6:5 and 8 and 9 and 14 and 15 &c.; Gal. 3 and 4; Rev. 2 and 3). A variety of evils not purged out; a variety of inadvertent stumblings in a church pointing towards reformation, though never to be approved, warrant no separation. Nor will simple apostasy from reformation once attained, warrant it. We must plead with our mother, plead; till it plainly appear, nothing is gained by our pleading, but rather made worse (Hos. 2:2).

Suppose the greater part of a church appear determined and obstinate in their apostasy to corruptions, notorious, and ruining to the very essentials of Christianity; the scripture warrants our separation. To contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints; to turn away, to withdraw from brethren that walk disorderly; to come out of a corrupt church, and be separate, lest we be partakers in her plague; to mark them, who, by their scandalous conduct, cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine we have received; to cease hearing the instruction, that causeth err from the words of knowledge; to beware of false guides; to beware of the legal leaven of the Pharisees, and of the leaven of Herod; to beware of receiving an heretic into our house, or bidding him God speed; to beware of being unequally yoked; or of communion with darkness, or the unfruitful works thereof; is expressly required in the sacred page (Jude 3; 2 Tim. 3:1-5; 2 Thes. 3:6; Rev. 18:4; Rom. 16:17; Prov. 19:27; Mark 8:15; 2 John 9-11; 2 Cor. 6:14). To flee from hireling pastors, who run unsent of Christ; enter not by the door prescribed in his word; and care not for the flock, but their own carnal advantage, is divinely marked as the character of Jesus’ sheep (John 10:1-13).

Absurdly, my friend, you tell me of Jesus and his apostles, prophets, and saints, their maintaining fellowship with the corrupt Jewish church. That they maintained fellowship with the obstinately corrupt party, you will find hard to illustrate. That he commanded his disciples to hear the scribes and Pharisees, as civil rulers, who sat in the seat of Moses, king of Jeshurun, perhaps may be true. Yet the original Greek doth necessarily infer it. But that dying, he ordered them to hear the priests, as ecclesiastic officers, sitting in Aaron’s, you cannot demonstrate. That Nicodemus and Joseph sat in the CIVIL Sanhedrin, after it condemned their adored Master, you can never prove: suppose they had, you could not thence infer the lawfulness of fitting in church judicatures with the most obstinate corrupters. Besides, who knows not, that then, the qualification of church officers turned much upon natural lineage, ceremonial purity? Do they so now? or not rather on moral endowments and works? Who knows not, that then there was but one tabernacle, temple, &c.? To have separate from that, would have been, on the matter, to unchurch one’s self. Now it is the reverse. I may withdraw from a national church, and yet have access to every ordinance of Christ.

To tell me, “Separation from a Christian church interpretatively condemns our adored Redeemer, should he keep communion of saints; it weakens the honest part, and strengthens the bad” is never a whit less absurd. Am I in as little danger of infection by corrupt churches, or disorderly walkers, as Christ? Christ’s communion with souls is a deep secret. Must I regulate my church-communion by that, which, without becoming God omniscient, to search the heart, and try the reins, I cannot certainly know! shocking! Christ’s communion with saints its constant and uninterrupted: he waters them every moment, the moment of scandalous conduct not excepted. Suppose then at his peremptory call, I call out from Antichrist, that I may not share in her plagues, while one saint, inadvertent, or disobedient, to his command, remains behind me; must this man’s disobedience render my OBEDIENCE a blasphemous condemnation of Christ, and a breaking the communion of saints? Was ever a thought more absurd! Was, Sir, the separation of Luther, Calvin, and Zuinglius, from the church of Rome, so monstrously wicked; because some pious soul came not along with them? According to you, it was: they weakened the good party they left behind. Further, Sir, what reason have I to hope God will bless the assistance I give to a good party, in a way of disobedience to his express command?

The grounds of separation must be solid and weighty: heresy in doctrine, idolatry in worship, tyranny in government, violent intrusion of pastors upon congregations of visible saints, scandalous lives of the clergy, sinful terms of communion, obstinately tolerated or established. Dear Amelius, would you really oblige me to continue in a Socinian synagogue, where, though I might believe as I pleased, I should be daily taught, that my adored Redeemer is a mere man; and the Holy Ghost but a mere creature, or influence; that my repentance, and not my Savior’s death, is the true satisfaction for my sin, &c.? Would you have me to be a member of that religious assembly, where I must believe a wicked man, infallible; and capable to forgive, or even indulge me in sin; where, in receiving the Lord’s supper, I must believe the elements turned into the very body and blood of Christ, and worship them as such; where I must pray to images angels, and saints, &c. or where I behooved idolatrously to bow at the sound of the name Jesus, and to bow toward altars and the east?

Were I in a church, whose supreme judicature, contrary to her own standards, solemnly espoused, determined against the saints freedom from the law as a covenant; the general offer of Christ as a Savior, to sinners as such; and which commonly screened the erroneous, the Arminians, or half Deists, from censure; slightly censured Arianism; obstinately refused to assert divine truth, in opposition to heresies processed at her bar; but rigorously prosecuted these who opposed her corruptions; or would not execute the most tyrannic settlements: suppose too, most of her pastors, on Sabbath, proclaimed from the pulpit, that the civil magistrate, as their spiritual head, had power to enact new qualifications of her clergy; new terms of their sitting in judicatures; suppose the most of her pastors being intruders, or their supporters, there should be almost no access to commit the ministry to faithful men; suppose I, with multitudes more, should have imposed upon us for pastors, men plainly destitute of the gifts, qualifications, and behavior prescribed by Christ; such as shall habitually act in manifest contradiction to their ordination-vows; such, as through the week, and even on Sabbath, shall mark a pleasure to accompany the swearer, and to eat and drink with the drunken; or spends his devoted hours about his well improven farm; and on Sabbath entertains us with Heathenism and Arminianism mixed; talks as if we had almost no need of a Savior from sin, as if our good works recommended us to the favor of God; or such as admit to the sacred seals, every asker; so that I am readily obliged to sit at the heavenly table with some I should be ashamed to appear within a common inn; persons with whom God forbids me to eat; must receive the elements from an elder, known to live in his family and secret, as a very Atheist; is a notorious swearer and drunkard; and give them to a fellow-communicant of a character equally bad; and perhaps have the table served by a pastor whose family or closet seldom attest his evening or morning worship of God; whose hands but lately shuffled his darling cards; who neither fears a minced oath, nor flagon of wine: must I dishonor my God, starve and poison my soul, from a superstitious concern to sit under the roof, and within the walls of the church! Ought I not rather to repair to such, if I can find them, who will preach me the gospel of Christ; and in the general tenor of their conduct, behave themselves as his servants?

The manner of separation, when sufficient ground is given, must be serious and grave. To separate rashly from churches, the most corrupt on earth; to separate without considering our conduct, and crying for the direction of Heaven therein; to separate without eagerness to ensure our communion with Christ, my soul abhors. For a smaller number of ministers, balked in their designs, to make an elopement, and claim the whole power of the court; for ministers first to secure themselves in a larger stipend, and then make their succession; or to claim a paramount power to admit or seclude their deserted brethren’s people, from the sacred seals, at pleasure, I quite disallow. Where pride or catching of lucre glare forth, it tempts me to suspect, the work is not of God. If I withdraw from corrupt ministers, but indulge corrupt lusts: if I withdraw not with knowledge, humility, meekness, and prudence: if I exclaim against sin in my neighbor; but hate not and watch against it in myself: if I exclaim against corruption, I do not inwardly bewail in the sight of God: if with earnest affection, I pray not for the real welfare of those I leave behind, in a corrupt church: if I rejoice at their fall; or for some small difference, bid my brother stand by, for I am holier than thou: if I bear witness to my own fancies, as if the inspirations of Heaven; if I regard divine truth, not so much for its infallible author, as because it was the principle of my father, my pastor, and my friend; if I baptize my prejudice and calumnious raillery; my ignorant and imprudent conduct, with the character of zeal for God, am I not seven-fold more the child of hell than before?

Absurdly, Sir, you hint in your last, “That, if you get a good sermon, and be helped to study these weightier matters of the law, mercy, judgment, and faith, you do not mind missions, qualifications of ministers, and form of church-government; no inquiry will be made concerning them at the tribunal of Christ.” My friend, will not God bring every work into judgment, good or bad? every idle word; every deed done in our body? What Jesus has written in his word, and ratified in his blood, think you unworthy of your notice? are you wiser and worthier than he? Do you care, even to anxiety, that your family be ruled in the manner you please; and that your servants run in your name, only when you send them? and care you not, how Jesus’ family be ruled; himself served; and his servants sent and act, according to his mind? Have you the temper of a saint, while you prefer not Jerusalem to your chiefest joy? Has Jesus laid down his life for you? has he edified you? has he set a hedge about all you have? and do you thus requite him, with the highest contempt of his kingly honor? When his worship is polluted, his truth perverted, and the walls of his Zion broke down, care you for none of these things? Tell me not, “It is sufficient, the fundamentals of Christianity remain.” Who told you, my friend, Jesus had prescribed things trifling and useless? an enemy certainly did it. Should I pull off your tiles; pluck out your windows, or even the pinnings of your wall; should I cut down the thorn hedge of your garden; would you tell me, there is no hurt done? the foundation, the inward furniture of my house is safe; my flowery beds and fruitful trees are unhurt? Would you not rather think your house and garden were ruined? the furniture of the former exposed to the chilling cold, the rotting rain, the robbing thief; the latter exposed to the trampling beast, the mischievous passenger? Discipline and government are the roof of Jesus’ temple, the hedge of his garden, the church; how well the doctrine and worship, these weightier matters, remain in their glory, when these are destroyed and perverted, the present state of affairs can attest. How quickly do we seem to have a set of preachers and professors, whose sermons and life shall declare, they have no much as heard, whether there be a divine law, spiritual and exceeding broad; whether there be a Christ, a Savior exalted, to give repentance and remission of sins; whether there be a Holy Ghost to quicken and sanctify our soul?

Neglect not, Sir, mercy, judgment, and faith; but, as Jesus commands, leave not the tithing of mint, anise, and cummin undone. If you truly study these weightier matters of the law, will not your judgment discern the superior value of Jesus’ ordinances, to all the inventions of men? discern the affronts done him, your glorious King? Will not your mercy pain your soul, for the injuries done your blessed Redeemer and God, and the laws of his house? Will not your faith embrace for divine, every one of his words; and work by love, opposing every thing contrary? If you know not, how concern about these, tends to your spiritual edification; blame your ignorance, not the statutes of Heaven. The ancient prophet was charged to shew “Israel the house, that they might be ashamed of their iniquities, and measure the pattern; to shew them the form of the house, and the fashion thereof, and the goings out thereof, and the comings in thereof, and all the forms thereof, and all the ordinances thereof, and all the forms thereof, and all the laws thereof; that they might keep the whole form thereof, and all the ordinances thereof, and do them. This is the law of the house; upon the top of the mountain, the whole limit thereof round about shall be most holy: behold , this is the law of the house.”