MIGHT not, Amelius, the divine right of a synod, be argued from the ecclesiastic Sanhedrin, or national council, of the Jewish church? That this was different from the high civil court of the kingdom, their different presidents and work, in the reign of Jehoshaphat, without more ado, may evince. This has the supreme power of declaring obstinate transgressors to be held as Heathen men and publicans. To this therefore Jesus, in his form of Christian discipline, may be supposed, partly, to allude (2 Chron. 19:11; Mat. 18:18). Might not the divine warrant of this court be pled, from the general hints of inspiration; that “two are better than one;” that “in the multitude of counsellors there is safety;” that the “spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets (Eccl. 4:9; Prov. 11:14; 1 Cor. 14:32)?” The law of necessity too, unanswerably pleads it. Not only the people of various worshipping assemblies, but of different classical associations; nay, a whole presbytery, is in hazard of being actually infected with heresy, idolatry, corruption; or may have a controversy with, and have given actual offence, to their brethren around: shall there be no remedy; no superior court, no church, to tell the matter to, for redness? In the sacred record, how oft are the whole professors of the Christian faith, represented as ONE CHURCH, built upon Christ; and herself the pillar and ground of truth; ONE BODY of Christ to which all church-officers are divinely set; to whose use they are given by Christ; and to which we must give none offence (Mat. 16:18; 1 Tim. 3:15; Eph. 4:4, 11, 12; 1 Cor. 12:12, 28 and 10:32)? Infers not this oneness, this relation of all officers to the catholic church; that, if possible, the one church, one body, ought to be governed by one court; that if increase of members enforce a division, into various congregations, these should be subject to one presbytery: and if further increase enforce a distinction, into various presbyterial associations, these, if possible, should unite in subject to one synod?
Nothing more plainly illustrates the divine warrant of ecclesiastical synods, than the apostolic pattern thereof; a pattern with documents there are scandals not possibly removed by any particular congregation on earth. This meeting at Jerusalem, about eighteen years after the death of our Lord, was occasioned by the PROPER CAUSE of a synod. Pretending commission from the apostles, some heretical teachers came down from Jerusalem, to Antioch, to Syria, and the places adjacent. By teaching that circumcision, and the observance of other branches of the ceremonial law, continued necessary to salvation: they subverted some, and troubled other members of the churches there. After much unsuccessful disputing, Paul, Barnabas, and others were delegate to Jerusalem, to the apostles, and elders, concerning this matter (Acts 15:1, 2, 5, 23, 24, 41).
Proper MEMBERS of a synod here convened, to consider this question. The apostles and elders at Jerusalem: Paul, Barnabas, and others from Antioch: no doubt other commissioners from Syria and Cilicia, where they were troubled with the false teachers; and to whom the decrees were sent (Acts 15:6). In vain, I hear, that not merely church-officers, but the whole body of Christians professors were judges on that occasion: the brethren, the whole church, the whole multitude. For it has been demonstrated no part of church-authority is lodged in her private members (see Letter 5th). Women, real members, a real part of the whole church, and Christian multitude, are divinely forbid to speak in the church (1 Cor. 14:34). Should it therefore be granted, the whole body of Christians were gathered to judge of this matter; the judgment of private members could amount to no more than the saints judging the world, or judging of angels doth (1 Cor. 6:2, 3); that is, an approbation of discretive judgment; without which, from the Christian multitude, I know not, if any judicature on earth can to edification determine an intricate point of general concern. Should any still insist, the whole multitude of believers were actually convened to judge of this affair, equally with the apostles and elders: I beg he will inform me, where they obtained a PLACE, proper for so many ten thousands of judges, to reason and vote with distinctness. Did the inveterate Jews compliment them with Solomon’s porch? or could it have been proper for the purpose? But that the brethren, who joined in judgment with apostles and elders, were not private persons; but rather COMMISSIONERS from the troubled churches around, is evidently marked, in that Judas and Silas, two of them, were PREACHERS (Acts 15:22).
Here, as in a synod, every member, inspired or not, acted by ORDINARY and EQUAL POWER, in the whole business laid before them; Paul an apostle, Barnabas a prophet, were as inferiors, delegated by the Antiochian church (Acts 15:2); the elders who convened had the same power as the apostles. To the elders, teaching or ruling, as well as apostles, was the matter referred. Elders, as well as apostles, convened to consider it. In the decision, elders, as well as apostles, say, “It seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us.” Elders, as well as apostles, authoritatively determined the decrees. By elders, as well as apostles, were the false teachers judicially marked with the infamous brand of TROUBLERS and SUBVERTERS of souls. In the name of the elders, as well as apostles, the letter of the meeting, containing their decision, were wrote to the churches. By elders, as well as apostles, were the messengers chosen, to deliver the decrees to those concerned. In short, this synod knew nothing of elders being improper judges in matters of faith, and cases of conscience (Acts 15:2, 6, 22 to 30; Acts 16:4). But why here did the inspired members put themselves on a level with others, if not to exhibit, to after-ages, an authoritative PATTERN?
Assembled together, the apostles and elders proceeded in the ORDINARY METHOD of synods. They examined the point, by much reasoning and dispute. In consequence of mature deliberation, they determined the question, and sent DECRETORY missives, with proper messengers, to the churches concerned. In their disputation, they argued from the oracles of God; on these they founded their decision; and hence therein say, “ If it was not to constitute to the Holy Ghost, and to us (Acts 15:7-30).” If it was not to constitute a pattern to after ages, how foolish; how absurd, for men inspired to reason and dispute on the affair! The sentence of one inspired was sufficient for decision.
In this convention, the apostles and elders exerted precisely the WHOLE POWER of a Christian synod. In opposition to the heresy taught, they, by a doctrinal decision, plainly declared, That obedience to the Mosaic law of ceremonies, was no more necessary. A first and second admonition not being rejected, they excommunicated not the heretics; but, to move the church to avoid them, they stigmatized them, Troublers of the church, and subverters of souls. A decree for promoting decency and good order, they enacted; importing, that to avoid offence, the believing Gentiles should abstain from fornication, things strangled, and blood (Acts 15:24-29).
In vain I hear it pretended, this meeting was merely consultative; their decision a mere advice. For what in it is rendered LAY UPON, ordinarily imports an authoritative imposition. The decision is expressly called a necessary burden (Acts 15:28). It is called DECREES ORDAINED. The word rendered DECREES, everywhere, in the New Testament, imports authoritative statutes. The word rendered ORDAINED, when applied to assemblies, imports authoritative decision. Joined together, how nervously must they import the AUTHORITY of the decision before us! The effect of the decision answered to authority, approven by Christ (Acts 15:10; Mat. 23:4; Acts 16:4 and 17:7; Luke 2:1; Col. 2:14; Eph. 2:15; John 18:31; Acts 24:6). Cheerfully the churches submitted to these DECREES; and were by them confirmed in the faith, comforted in heart, and increased in number daily (Acts 16:45 and 15:31). Could my friend with a more exact pattern of a synodical meeting? Or can be refused, that what was written aforetime, was written for our learning?