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LETTER XVII.-Of the Calling, &c. of Church-Courts.


LETTER XVII.-Of the Calling, &c. of Church-Courts.

James Dodson

ALREADY, the divine warrant for ecclesiastic courts, sessions, presbyteries, and synods, have been demonstrated. By what means shall these judicatures be convened? what power belongs to each? are they subordinate, the former to the latter? are points now to be examined?

That civil magistrates have a power to call ecclesiastic synods, has, from the unerring oracles of Heaven, been instructed. In the church too, Jesus has lodged full power to convene such meetings. This is interwoven with her very constitution; nor man, nor angel, can deprive her of it; and at her peril she attempts to surrender it. To have power of government, without authority to convene a judicature to exercise it, is quite inconsistent. Under the Old Testament, magistrates, being often the church’s friends, called sundry, if not most of her councils (2 Chron. 19:8-11 and chap. 29 and 30; Mat. 2:4, 5). During the period of New Testament history, and for ages afterward, magistrates were open enemies to the church; she therefore called her own councils (Acts 6 and 15). As the members of synods are subjects of the magistrate, as well as of Christ; as their meeting is connected, in some degree, with the interests of the state, as well as of the church; it is most desirable, when church and state harmonize, in the convention of every such council.

When convened, these ecclesiastic judicatories have no power to interfere in anything civil, as such. Christ’s kingdom, whose officers they are, is not of this world. His pattern directs them to avoid dividing and judging, in anything civil (John 18:36; Luke 12:14). Civil injuries however, not as civilly hurtful; but as sinful, offensive, and scandalous, come under their consideration (Mat. 18:15-20). No church-court has power to enact new laws, properly so-called; one being their Master and lawgiver, even Christ. To each of these courts pertains a power to call before them, whatever church-member under their inspection, the business to be considered concerns. To each pertains a power to hear and judge every cause regularly presented to them; and to admit, censure, and absolve, as is most conducive to edification. To congregational sessions, it pertains to inquire into the spiritual state of those under them; to admit to, or suspend from the sacred seals; to admonish, rebuke, and absolve, as is edifying (Heb. 13:17; 1 Thes. 5:12, 13; Ezek. 34:4; Mat. 7:6; 2 Thes. 3:6, 14, 15; 1 Cor. 11:27; Jude 23). To presbyteries, it belongs to ordain pastors, and perhaps other church-officers; to excommunicate notorious offenders; and to manage and determine such affairs, as are too hard for the session (1 Tim. 4:14; 1 Cor. 5:4, 5; Mat. 18:15-20). To synods, it belongs ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to lay down rules for ordering the circumstances of the public worship of God, and the government of his church, according to the maxims prescribed in his word; and to receive complaints in case of male-administration. The lawful sentences of these courts, are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the inspired word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God (Acts 15:15-31 and 16:4; Mat. 18:17-20).

But does the heavenly warrant bear, that sessions ought to be subordinate to the presbyteries; and these to synods? It certainly doth. The very light of nature teacheth me, that if there is an higher court, I may appeal to it, if wronged by an inferior. A subordination of judicatories, in the Hebrew church, is from scripture abundantly evident (Exod. 18:22-26; Deut. 17:6, 10; 2 Chron. 19:8, 11). Is our danger and necessity less than theirs? or did Jesus leave them more complete remedies for their disorders? It were absurd to think the one, or the other. The gradual ascent of managing offences, prescribed by himself, plainly confirms this subordination. His care for the whole church, cannot be less, than that for a single member. If then, an inferior judicatory offend us, ought we not to carry the matter to these who have more influence and authority? If the offending judicatory neglect to hear this; ought not the offense to be told to the church in the highest sense of the word? Who knows not, that the Jewish church, whose forms are alluded to, and part of their rules quoted in this sacred form of process, was represented, not only in their synagogic courts, but chiefly in their ecclesiastic sanhedrin (Mat. 18:18; Deut. 19:15)? This subordination too, is farther evinced from the churches, the presbyterial associations, of Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia, &c. their referring an affair to the famous synod at Jerusalem, just now mentioned, and their readily submitting to this determination (Acts 15).

To deny this subordination of church-courts, is pregnant with the greatest absurdity. It would import, that whatever provision Jesus, her head, has made to check or redress lesser and personal evils; he has made none to redress the grosser; heresies, schisms, and scandals, wherein many are guilty. It would import, that a small congregation, perhaps of ten or twelve, convened by themselves, have more power, than when assembled with a variety of such congregations, and their rulers; there being supposed in the former case a power of jurisdiction; in the latter, no more but than simple deliberation and advice. It would import and almost utter impossibility, for the whole Christians in a kingdom to agree in any uniform plan of doctrine, worship, discipline, or government; each congregation being left to act entirely by itself. It would import, that every minister is pastor merely to his own congregation; and hence cannot go, as such, to another; or to propagate the gospel among Heathens and heretics. It would import the most absurd tyranny over the pastor; in that his whole doctrine and conduct shall be merely subject to the cognisance of his own elders, or people and, in fine, that the inspired Paul quite mistook himself, when he wrote, that the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets.