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LETTER II.-Of the Divine Warrant for Church Government.


LETTER II.-Of the Divine Warrant for Church Government.

James Dodson

THAT our adored Redeemer has a church, no Christian, no candid reader of the sacred volumes can doubt. Himself hath declared, she is built upon the rock of his divine person, and “the gates of hell shall not prevail against her (Mat. 16:18).” The Christian church alway denotes a society of men professing to believe in, and serve, the Lord Jesus Christ. The scripture, however, does not always use the word in the same signification; to mark which, is very necessary in our present search. Sometimes church denotes the whole members of Christ’s mystical body, considered in their spiritual and invisible relation to him. Thus, he is made head over all things to “the church, which is his body, and the fulness of him that filleth all in all.” To this, all the elect, and they only, pertain (Eph. 1:22 and 5:25). Anon, it denotes all these in the world, who profess their faith in Christ, and obedience to him. In this sense, the gospel rendered Jews and Gentiles one church. In this sense, she is built upon the foundation of the truths published by prophets and apostles; and hath evangelists, pastors, teachers, helpers, governments, given to, and set in her; and is the pillar, and ground of truth (Eph. 4:4, 11, 12; 1 Cor. 12:12, 13, 28; 1 Tim. 3:15). Sometimes a church denotes a number of assemblies, worshippers of God in Christ, united in particular fellowship with one another: hence, I read of the church at Jerusalem; at Antioch; at Ephesus; at Corinth; in Judea; and of the Thessalonians (Acts 8:1 and 13:1 and 20:17; Rev. 2:1, 2; 2 Cor. 1:1; Gal. 1:13; 1 Thes. 1:1). Anon, it signifies a particular worshipping assembly of Christ’s followers, to which his word and ordinances are dispensed: hence, I read of the churches, that is, Christian worshipping assemblies of Judea and Galilee; of Syria and Cilicia; of Macedonia, Galatia, Crete, and Corinth: and of a church in an upper room; and of one in the houses of Nymphas, of Aquila, and of Philemon (Acts 9:31 and 15:41; 2 Cor. 8:1; Gal. 1:2, 22; Tit. 1:5; 1 Cor. 14:34; Acts 20:7; Col. 4:15; Rom. 16:5; Philem. 2). Finally, it is taken for the rulers of such worshipping assemblies: so we may understand it, when we are required to tell the church of a scandal; when we are informed, that the commissioners from Antioch were brought on their way by the church; and that Paul saluted the church at Jerusalem (Mat. 18:17; Acts 15:3 and 18:22 and 21:20). For, is it credible, all the Christian professors at Antioch would attend their commissioners part of their way to the synod of Jerusalem? Is it credible, Paul saluted all the many ten thousands of Christians at Jerusalem? It is not.

But, to avoid, for the present, every shadow of strife, about the various signification of the word; it is agreed, that the church is a society of men professing to worship and serve the Lord Christ; a society erected upon a supernatural foundation, to bring glory to God, and promote the endless welfare of men. But if she is a society; how can she subsist without laws and ordinances? Did ever human society do so? When nations but approached to the confines of anarchy, what disorder! what butchery! what robbery! what enslaving oppression always take place! Let the case of Israel, when without judges; let the case of the African nations; let the ancient condition of Scotland, bear witness. If she is a society erected to bring glory to God in highest; a society erected in flat opposition to the kingdom of Satan, is it possible, but men, who cannot know spiritual things; men, whose carnal mind is enmity against God; whose hearts are deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, if left to be ruled by their own inclinations, must certainly rush on the wildest disorder? Is it possible, but Satan will do his utmost to overturn, divide, confound, and pollute her? Attests not the experience of every age, that no society is more readily infected with corruptions; filled with disorder; or rent by unnatural divisions? Her need of authoritative regulations, is therefore notorious and glaring.

That our Redeemer gave a particular form of government to the Old Testament church, was never denied: the minutely described ordinances thereof, are obvious to him, who but glanceth the writings of Moses. The equal, if not superior, need of a government, to the New Testament church is undeniable. Satan, now more experienced in deceiving, and his agents are still alive; still ready to waste this sacred vineyard, if unhedged (1 Pet. 5:8). Her members are still a mixture of tares and wheat; of sheep and goats. There is still a necessity of discerning between the precious and the vile (Mat. 13:30 and 25:32; 2 Tim. 3:1-5); still a necessity of trying and censuring false teachers; and of guarding the ordinances of God from contempt and pollution (Rev. 2:2, 14, 15, 20; 1 Cor. 11 and 14). Has not Jesus an equal regard to the New Testament church, as to the Old? Has he left that which himself so emphatically stiles the kingdoms of heaven, without any particular laws, or form of government, but the varied inclinations of men? Was he not as faithful, in his New Testament house, as Moses was in the old? If he was, must he not have specified a particular form of government for her, as Moses did? Yes; what thoughtful person can doubt thereof (Heb. 3:1-6)? Hath God not spared his Son, but delivered him for, and to the church? Shall he not with him, freely give her all good things? Is not a divinely institute form of government, a good thing? Tends it not to her peace, order, and spiritual edification? Will he who loved the church, and gave himself for it, refuse bestow on her a thing so useful and necessary? Am I not divinely certified, that his word is sufficient to direct me, in every good work; sufficient to direct a church ruler, how to “behave in the church of the living God (2 Tim. 3:17; 1 Tim. 3:14, 15 and 5:21 and 6:13, 14)?” Amid his vision of the New Testament church, the prophet is directed to teach his people, “the form of the house, and the fashion thereof, and the outgoings thereof, and the comings in thereof, and all the ordinances thereof, and all the forms thereof, and all the laws thereof (Ezek. 43:11).” If no particular form of government is appointed for her, why all this waste of words, from the mouth of the Most High?

Nothing, however, more clearly demonstrates her particular, her divinely institute form of government, than the laws and ordinances thereof, marked in the sacred page. There everything circumstantial is divinely directed by the general rules of order, decency, and edification; of acting in all things to the glory of God; and “giving no offence neither to Jew nor Gentile, nor to the church of God (1 Cor. 14:26, 40 and 10:31, 32).” In subordination to these, the very light of nature teach-eth me, that the church, as every society, must have a government within herself; which is to be managed in the manner that best answers the end of her erection, the glory of God, and the salvation of men: That there must be a method of ending her contests, and repressing her unruly members: That in every controversy, not plainly determined by her Master’s oracles, the smaller part must yield to the greater: That, after engagement to her rules, every member ought to observe them, unless he can show their contrariety to the sacred word: That, if, by multiplication of members, she must be distributed into several worshipping assemblies, these, to maintain her unity, ought to be jointly governed: That various cases happening, too hard for the decision of a single congregation; various congregations, or their rulers, ought, if possible, to combine for judging the same: That if there be a subordination of judges, there must be a liberty, if injured, to appeal from the inferior, to that which is superior.

The more substantial parts of church government seem plainly marked, and particularly enjoined in the sacred volume. THENCE I hear, that Jesus Christ hath called out of the world, a people to himself (1 Pet. 2:9; Acts 15:14). THERE, I discern him giving particular persons the keys of the kingdom of heaven; a power of dispensing doctrine, sacraments, and jurisdiction (Mat. 16:19). I find him prescribing public prayer and thanksgiving; charging ministers to attend hereunto; and to make it for all men, in a known tongue, that the unlearned may say amen (Acts 6:4; 1 Tim. 2:1-3; 1 Cor. 14:14-17). I find him appointing singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; and charging us to sing with the spirit, making melody in our hearts to the Lord (Eph. 5:18, 19; Col. 3:16; 1 Cor. 14:15, 16). I find him appointing the public reading, and expounding of the scripture; with the manner of performing the same (Deut. 31:11-13; Neh. 8:18 and 9:3; Acts 13:15, 27; Mark 16:15; 1 Cor. 1:17; 2 Tim. 4:2). I find him instituting the sacraments of baptism, and the Lord’s supper, with the things relative thereto (Mat. 28:19; 1 Cor. 11:20-30); and appointing solemn fasting, and vowing to himself, on every proper occasion (Joel 2:12). I observe him prescribing the qualifications and mission of the administrators of his ordinances; and promising his presence and blessing to attend them in their work (1 Tim. 3:1-8 and 4:14; Mat. 28:20). I find him committing to them, a power, authoritatively to decide controversies (Acts 15 and 16:4); a power to admonish and rebuke offending members (Mat. 18:15, 18; 1 Tim. 5:20); a power to reject the obstinate, and absolve the penitent. Time fails me, at present, to enumerate every divine appointment, relative to the order of the church, I see plainly marked in the inspired records: but, if upon a deliberate enquiry, I find there a prescribed account, of her head; of the nature of her government; of her members, officers, and customs; can I, without exposing my ignorance, or my rebellion against God; can I, without incurring hazard to my soul, hesitate a moment, whether he has prescribed her a particular form of government? It is absurd to imagine the former can be fixed; and the latter unsettled. Concerning these, under the direction of the Divine Spirit, I intend, and may you, Amelius, search the scriptures, that we be no more faithless but believing.