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LETTER IV.-Of the Qualification of Church Members.


LETTER IV.-Of the Qualification of Church Members.

James Dodson

WITHIN the compass of inspiration, nothing is more explicit, than that our adorned Redeemer’s kingdom in the church, is not of this world (John 18:36); is not of an earthly origin, form, temper, or end. This, dying, he attested to Pilate: the declaration, he sealed with his blood. Her head is a quickening spirit. Her power, offices, ordinances, censures, and ends of erection, are spiritual; relate to the soul. Her real members are only such as have the Spirit of Christ; and have the same mind in them, that was in him. The members of her visible state, must therefore be such, as appear called out of the world, that lieth in wickedness, to glory and virtue (2 Pet. 1:3). Such as live in gross ignorance, or open wickedness; in neglect of God’s worship; or of relative duties; in profane swearing; contempt of the Sabbath; in malice, murder, drunkenness; in unchastity, theft, covetousness; in extortion, lying, reviling, and the like; are expressly excluded from the kingdom of Christ: hence can never be justly sustained members of his church (Isa. 27:11; 1 Cor. 6:9, 10; Gal. 5:19, 20; Jer. 10:25). To compose churches, of persons, known habitually to live in wickedness, is to erect synagogues for Satan, not temples for Christ. To account all Christians, who live in a country where Christianity is generally professed, is notoriously absurd. If Christ’s kingdom is not of this world; how can seas, rivers, hills, and landmarks, be the limits thereof? What christianizing; what sanctifying virtue, has the air or soil of Britain, more than these of Japan? When the natural presence of Christ did not christianize his neighbours in Nazareth and Judea; how can that of a saint do it, to these around? Say not, these wicked men’s Christianity is founded on their infant-baptism. Their baptism founds a reason for a formal casting them out of the church, if obstinate in their sin; but can never atone for their living in open contradiction to baptismal vows. Till perjury, attending a sinful course, diminish its guilt, a baptized person, wilfully ignorant or profane, cannot fail to be worse than a mere Heathen; and so more unfit for a member of the Christian church.

Is wicked men's defence of admission to the sacred seals, a token of their repentance? No: how many desire it, to follow a common custom? to please a natural conscience? or even to divert themselves? After admission, are they not as wicked as ever? Did the Hebrew harlot, who, just flamed in lust, sufficiently mark her repentance, by peace offerings, and pretence to paying her vows (Prov. 7:10-27)? By addressing the Savior, Hail Master, and kissing him, did Judas manifest his penitential grief (Mat. 26:49)? Should I, Amelius, swear to be your faithful servant, and yet habitually dishonor and disobey you; abusing everything put into my hand; would you imagine my solemn, but ever violate, oath, rendered me faithful and honest? If, after wasting your goods, and wounding your credit, I should presumptuously desire your bill for the speedy payment of wages; would you reckon this, an undoubted mark of my repentance; a sufficient reason of continuing me in your service; and bestowing on me the distinguished privileges of your family? You would not. The application to our present point, is striking and easy.

No doubt, the children of visible saints are to be accounted members of the Christian church, till, by heathenish principles or practices, they warrant their ejection. The promise is to church-members and their children. God is their God, and the God of their seed after them. Their children are federally holy; and of such is the kingdom of God (Acts 2:38, 39; Gen. 17:10; 1 Cor. 7:14; Mark 10:14). Detested be the fancy, that heathenizes all baptized in their infancy; that strips the children of Christians, of privileges conferred on the ancient Jews. If your parents be unconcerned, how your posterity grow up in the knowledge of divine truth; how they behave in their morals; whom they hear as their pastors; trample ye not upon the heavenly mandate, that the fathers unto the children, should declare God’s truth? should declare his testimony unto their children, that they may declare it unto another generation (Isa. 38:19; Psal. 78:3-7)? Rebel ye not against him that speaketh from heaven, Train up a child in the way that he should go; and when he is old, he will not depart from it? and requireth you, diligently to teach his statutes to your children, when you sit down, rise up, walk by the way, or abide in the house (Prov. 22:6; Deut. 6:6, 7)? If God know, you do not command your children and household, to walk in his way; do not endeavor, that you and your house should serve him: if you refuse to raise up seed in your family to Christ, the Lord; what remains, but, that supply to the church come from another airth [direction], and your offspring, perhaps with yourselves, be eternally destroyed; your seed be cursed; your children left to themselves to bring you to shame (Gen. 18:19; Josh. 24:15; Deut. 28:18; Prov. 29:15)? In your dying moments, how shall it affect you, to leave them ruined! At the tribunal; in the burning lake; how shall it torment you, to behold them damned, through your unconcern! to hear them curse you, as the guilty cause! Not only the children of visible saints; but everyone willing, ought to be the subject of the church’s instructing care. He that winneth souls is wise. Instruction, however, prepares for; does not constitute, or suppose, one a member of the Christian church.

Nor is real change of nature and state, the criterion of membership in the visible church. Without it, indeed, none can candidly offer themselves to the sacred seals. But, without it, church-rulers may admit them, if offered. Not man, but the Lord alone, searcheth the heart. He admitted the Jews into ecclesiastic covenant with him, though, many of them, had not a heart to perceive, to embrace, his truth (Deut. 29:3, 4, 13). In order to admission, the Baptist and apostles required probable appearance; not infallible evidence, of mens faith and repentance (Mat. 3:5-7; Acts 2:38, 41). Ananias, Sapphira, Simon the sorcerer, and others, were baptized, who yet remained in the gall of bitterness, and bond of iniquity (Acts 5:1-10 and 8:13-23). Many unregenerate members appear in the churches of Corinth; Philippi; Laodicea, &c (1 Cor. 5 and 11; Phil. 3:18, 19; Rev. 3:17). Christ compares the Christian church to a floor where corn is mingled with chaff; to a net, inclosing good and bad; to a field, where hypocritical tares grow up with the wheat (Mat. 3:12 and 13:24, 47). Were positive evidence of regeneration, the term of church-fellowship; men would be involved in judging the inward state of others: the consciences of the admitters would be perpetually racked, in such decisions: such as pleased, by solemn dissimulation, might obtain the highest privileges of the Christian church; while gracious persons, laboring under doubts, should be readily deprived of the children’s bread.

Without a visible conversation, correspondent to regeneration; correspondent to the inspired characters of church-members; no man can lawfully be acknowledged, as such. How does the sacred oracles describe the man, who ascends into the hill of God? As a saint, and faithful in Christ Jesus; as a holy brother, partaker of the heavenly calling: whose hands, or outward conversations, are clean from scandal: whose heart, his life marks to be pure: who doth not lift up his soul unto vanity; but is serious, sober, and fixed in the faith, and way of God: who doth not swear deceitfully; taking sinful oaths, or breaking and ridiculing, what lawful engagements he is under: who walketh uprightly, worketh righteousness, and candidly speaketh the truth in his heart; who backbiteth not his neighbor, nor taketh up a reproach against him: who esteems the society of the saints; and detests the intimacy of the wicked: who abhors dishonest gain; and adheres to his engagements: who knows and keepeth the truth: who professeth his faith in Christ; and shews it by his good works; walking orderly; denying ungodliness and worldly lusts; and living soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world (Eph. 1:1; Col. 1:2; Heb. 3:1; Psal. 24:3, 4 and 15; 2 John 4, 9; Isa. 26:2; Jam. 2:18; 2 Thes. 3:6; 2 Tim. 3:1-5; Tit. 2:12-14) Without a conversation, consistent with these characters, it is at our peril, if we admit one, an adult member of the Christian church. “Let everyone that nameth the name of Christ, depart from iniquity.”

To his admission, what profession of faith is necessary? Must he profess a religious assent to any histories narrated, or opinions invented, by fallible men? No: it is blasphemous, it is Antichristian, to demand it. Christ allows his ministers to teach nothing, but what he has commanded. He hath denounced a terrible curse upon whoever adds to, or diminishes from his sacred word. He charges to admit into ecclesiastic fellowship, these, weak in the faith; but not to doubtful disputations (Isa. 8:29; Mat. 28:20; Deut. 12:32; Rev. 22:18, 19; Rom. 14:1). Nowhere doth he allow us to add to the terms of church-fellowship, prescribed in his word; not, without a tincture of Rome, will any attempt it. What then must be the matter of his confession? The leading truths of the heavenly oracle, concerning the end and rule of religion; concerning the existence, unity, and infinite perfection of God; and his subsistence in three persons, the same in substance, equal in power and glory: concerning man’s holy and happy creation state; his fall into sin and misery, and utter inability to recover himself; his redemption by the electing and covenanting love of the Father; the mediation of the Son, in his person, office, and state; and the application of the Holy Ghost; whereby we are blessed, with union to Christ; justification through his imputed righteousness; adoption into his family; renovation into his image; comfort in his relation and fulness; and endless glory in his presence: concerning our improvement of the doctrines and laws of God unto a conviction of our guilt, and danger, and a direction to escape it by means of faith in Jesus Christ; repentance unto life; and a diligent use of the outward ordinances, God has appointed for our salvation; particularly the reading and hearing of his word; the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper; with prayer in his name.

As the truths of God are gradually manifested, the candidate, for church fellowship, ought to enlarge his confession, in proportion thereto. Christ admitted his disciples to his sacred supper, while they had no distinct view of his resurrection; or of the spiritual nature of his kingdom. I cannot, however, persuade myself, that now I may be admitted, except I believe he died for our offences, and rose again for our justification; for, if Christ is not risen, our faith is vain; we are yet in our sins (Rom. 4:25; 1 Cor. 15:17). Who can believe, no more knowledge, no more confession, of gospel truth, is now necessary to admission, than was, just before the dawn of the reformation? If the divine Spirit chargeth us, whereunto we have attained, to walk by the same rule, to mind the same thing; to hold fast our profession, the profession of our faith without wavering; to take heed to ourselves, that we lose not these things, which we have wrought (Phil. 3:16; Heb. 4:14 and 10:20; 2 John 8). If he warn us, that God’s soul shall have no pleasure in us, if we draw back (Heb. 10:38); it is reasonable, to require such a candidate to confess, what points of sacred truth the church he has been educated in, and joins, has already plainly and solemnly espoused. For such as have ready access to the scripture, to remain ignorant of, or enemies to, any truth, therein plainly revealed, must imply horrid contempt of God; and so be highly offensive and criminal. To reject or deny what divine truth has been solemnly espoused by us, or in our name, must involve in still deeper scandal.

With you, my friend, no difference in principle, makes a man scandalous. “He may, you think, be very sincere in his views: he cannot force his conscience: if therefore his practice correspond, he has only God to answer to, for his sentiment.” But softly, Sir, the apostolic synod declare them who taught, circumcision was necessary to salvation in the Christian church, subverters of souls, and troublers of the church (Acts 15:24). The inspired apostle reckons heresies, among the works of the flesh; which exclude from the kingdom of God (Gal. 5:20, 21). He orders every obstinate heretic to be expelled from the church (Tit. 3:10). For blasphemous rejection of the doctrines of faith, he delivered Alexander and Hymenaeus to Satan (1 Tim. 1:20). He curses to eternal woe, the man that preaches another gospel, than of salvation through the imputed righteousness of Christ (Gal. 1:8, 9). For unwillingness to bear them that are evil; for trying and condemning false apostles, and hating the deeds of heretical men, are the rulers of the Asian churches commended; and such as held false opinions, or tolerate seducers, condemned (Rev. 2:2, 6, 14, 15, 20). He that abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. And if any bring not this doctrine, I am divinely charged, not to receive him into my house, nor bid him Godspeed; and warned that if I do, I render myself, a partaker with him, in his evil deeds (2 John 8-11). In vain, you tell men, of the man’s sincerity; am I in God’s stead to know his heart, and try his reins? Should he profess his candor; it is profession of Christianity, not of mere sincerity, that denominates one, a disciple of Christ. If given up to a seared, an erring conscience; what horrid sentiments and conduct may I not become sincere in! Was not Saul, the persecutor, abundantly sincere in opposing Christ, and wasting his church? He verily thought he should do so. Did not other persecutors think, their murder of the saints was a doing God service (Acts 26:9; John 16:2)? Did such sincerity qualify its subjects for admission to the sacred seals? What know I, but millions of Jews, Mahometans, and Heathens, may be sincere in their religious mode; inwardly reckoning it the best? Is it therefore not abominable and scandalous? What know I, how sincere a Socinian is, in denying the Godhead, and satisfaction of Christ; and almost every article of the Christian faith? How sincere an Anthropomorphite is, in believing his God corporeal, like part of himself? How sincere an Antinomian may be, in believing, that Christ died, that we might be delivered from the law as a rule; and so live as we list? Would profession of sincerity in such horrid blasphemy, entitle men to the distinguished privileges of the children of Christ? Or would it excuse man, that he hath provoked God to give him up to strong delusions, that he may believe lies? or that the corruption and pride of his heart hath so attached him to error, that he cannot conceive or believe, what God has plainly revealed in his word?

May not even the rejection of the plan of church government, dictated by God in his sacred oracles, be it Presbyterian, Prelatic, or whatever it will, be so circumstantiate, as to render it criminally scandalous? If your servant, Amelius, contrary to your order, contrary to his promise and oath, and for his own gain, should sell off, or exchange for worse, your corns; your cattle; would you think, there was nothing in it? Would you still think, there was nothing in it? Would you still think, he was a good, honest, serious saint? Would you cheerfully admit him, as such, without any profession of repentance and resolution of amendment, to the Christian feast? Would you not rather say, Be his state as it will, he is a scandalous, perjured thief. And, Sir, are not the least truths and commands of God, relative to the discipline and government of his church, of as much importance, as your cattle, and corns? Hath not he expressly required me, to buy the truth, and sell it not; and to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints (Prov. 23:23; Jude 3)? Can there, then, be no sin; no scandal; in selling, in denying, and rejecting them, for the inventions of men? If, by national covenant; by ordination-vows; by solemn adherence to a confession of faith; I am engaged to maintain such divinely prescribed form of church government; can I, without scandal, at once disobey my Maker, my Savior; fraudulently sell, or exchange, his blood-ratified truths; and violate my solemn vow? If such as swear to their temporal hurt, upon changing, are excluded from the hill of God; ought these who change, when they swear to their profit and duty, to be cheerfully admitted?

Without knowledge, of the fundamental truths of the Christian faith; no man can make any Christian confession. Without knowledge of these, his heart cannot be good; he can have no hope, God will not have mercy on him; he cannot discern the Lord’s body. If he partake of the holy banquet, he eats and drink damnation to himself. He must not then be admitted (Prov. 19:2; Isa. 27:11; 1 Cor. 11:29). Indeed a person, weak in his intellects, but tender and circumspect in his life, may be admitted upon a smaller degree of knowledge, than one whose natural intellect is more vigorous, but his life less circumspect. The reason is; more of the powerful influence of gospel-truth, and less evidence of sloth, appear in the case of the former, than in that of the latter. In like manner, one educate in the Lutheran or Greek church, if sufficiently attested in life, might be occasionally admitted to partake with us, though ignorant of, or even prejudiced against some divine truths, not fundamental, which are publicly espoused by us. The reason is; his particular church has not, for ages past, enjoyed the same degrees of light into some divine truths; not made, precisely the same explicit espousal of them, as ours. He may, notwithstanding, hold fast whereunto he hath attained; in which case, him that is weak in the faith, receive ye, saith God, but not to doubtful disputations.

But, how is the adult entrant to full communion with the Christian church to profess his faith? Is a simple adherence to the scripture sufficient? Must he declares his adherence to some human creed or confession of faith? Or must he swear a certain form of covenant-bond? You, Amelius, extol the first, as entirely safe, and freeing the conscience from ecclesiastic tyranny. To me, it appears quite unsatisfactory. An idiot, or ignorant, may profess an adherence to the sacred text, while he knows nothing of its contents. It secures not against human imposition, unless the candidate restrict his adherence to the divine originals, in Hebrew and Greek; which few could either give, or receive, with judgment. Nor could even such adherence give any satisfaction; unless the candidate explained, in what sense he understood a multitude of particular texts. Socinians, Arians, Sabellians, Anthropomorphites, Pelagians, Arminians, Antinomians, having wrested the scripture, pretend an adherence to it, as the only rule of their faith and practice. Yet what a church; rather what a synagogue of Satan, would a mixed collection of them make? What peculiar doctrine of Christianity; what principle of natural or revealed religion, would not be overturned by some of the unite body?

To give a compendious view of the leading points of the Christian religion, which lie dispersed in the sacred volumes; to represent the analogy of faith, and assist towards perusing the scripture with understanding; to exhibit the heavenly truths, in express opposition to damnable errors, sprung up in the church; to mark to the world, the common sentiments of a church, that they may join her with judgment; to point out to her members, what they ought to be well rooted and grounded in; and to promote her purity and peace; a sound CONFESSION is extremely useful and necessary. The divine Spirit approves it. He charges to hold fast the form of sound words (2 Tim. 1:13). Few, or none, will dissent, but such as abhor restriction, from divulging their error with applause. So the thief hates the watchful cur [dog], who alarms the family, to prevent the pillage of their house. But as every creed, every confession of faith, is of human composure; to deny the seals of God’s covenant to a man, however circumstantiate, merely because he could not understand, or would not ignorantly approve, some particular phrase thereof, appears marked with tyranny over the conscience; and a thrusting of an human essay into the station of God’s sacred word, whose rectitude and truth, I must believe, whether I understand it or not.

With respect to covenant-bonds, their express words being adopted, in a solemn appeal to the Most High; it is demonstrably evident, that, except they be so plain, as everyone, admittable to the Lord’s table, may understand them; except the things sworn to, or against, be so plainly commanded, or forbidden, in the heavenly oracles; as every, even the weakest Christian, may perceive it; to impose the swearing thereof, as a term of sacramental admission, would be highly criminal; would natively render the horrid sin of swearing without truth, judgment, or righteousness, a frequent term of Christian fellowship, at the holy feast. How shocking the thought! Besides, public covenanting is, everywhere in scripture, represented as a voluntary, an occasional duty. At what hazard, then, should men turn it into a stated, ordinary term of admission, to the Lord’s table? Would not this be, to behave as lords over, not as servants in God’s house?

Moreover, how could a simple adherence to a creed or confession of faith; or the swearing of any human-formed covenant-bond, give proper security, concerning a man’s faith, or obedience? He is perhaps quite ignorant of what he avows: or has subtlety enough to understand the phrases thereof, in a sense very different, from the avowed by the church. On the whole, it plainly follows, that no man ought to be admitted to full communion with the visible church, without a thorough examination; in which he is called to mark his knowledge; confess his faith; and profess his resolution of obedience, in his own words. If hereon, it appear, he can, with understanding and candor, solemnly declare his adherence to a sound confession of faith; or swear a lawful covenant; the former is certainly ever agreeable; nor, in some cases, is the latter improper.

To state admission to the new-covenant seals, upon a clear foundation, you, Amelius, have oft insisted, That all saints, all that love our Lord Jesus, and have communion with him, are to be admitted, without any more ado. But my friend’s habitual practice, long ago tempted me to suspect him an unbeliever of that article of our creed, concerning the HOLY catholic church, and communion of SAINTS. It rather proves, you are for the communion of all sinners. Him that cometh unto you for admission, especially if endowed with worldly power and wealth, you in no wise cast out: persons brutishly ignorant; neglecters of the worship of God in secret, and in their family; profaners of God’s name and Sabbath; habitual drunkards; and notorious whoremongers; you admit with the same marks of cheerfulness, as if the most circumspect saints. Contrary to your Master’s precept, why do you give that which is holy to dogs? Why do you not separate the precious from the vile? Why do you not return, and discern between him that feareth God, and him that feareth him not; that you may be his mouth to the people? Ah, what open enemies of Christ, you thus bid Godspeed, in going up to crucify him afresh, and eat and drink damnation to themselves, not discerning the Lord’s body! When you, Sir, whose lips should keep knowledge, by admitting to the sacred seals, multitudes of habitual and open transgressors, practically declare your hopes, they may be in covenant with God; all his children by faith in Christ Jesus; what numbers you harden in their sinful course, and state! In contradiction to your Master, how loud you proclaim, that wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth unto life, and few there be that miss it! What numbers, just now in hell, curse you, for giving them prompt access to eat and drink their endless ruin!

Dropping these tremendous hints; to found a title of admission to these holy seals, upon real saintship, love to Christ, and communion with him, to me appears altogether absurd. How can these secret, these deep hidden things, be the foundation, the credentials, of admission to a public ordinance? These things alway remain with every regenerate person. If they are the foundation of admission, we must welcome the saint to the sacred feast, though besotted with drink, as Noah; though defiled with incest, as Lot; just involved in murder, as David; wallowing in whoredom, as Solomon; or with curses and oaths denying his Master, as Peter. If you say, they must, before admission, repent of their scandals, your present sentiment is overturned; and admission founded not upon saintship, but on an outward profession, and conversation becoming the gospel.

Heartily I agree with our excellent Confession, “That all saints being united to one another in love, have communion in each other’s gifts, and graces; and are obliged to the performance of such duties, as conduce to their MUTUAL GOOD. All saints by profession, are bound to maintain an HOLY FELLOWSHIP in the worship of God, and in performing such spiritual services, as tend to their MUTUAL EDIFICATION.” This sentiment, long uncontradicted in Britain, but chiefly the inspired oracle that “all things are lawful, but all things are not expedient; all things are lawful, but all things edify not; let all things be done to the use of edifying; withdraw from every brother that walketh disorderly (1 Cor. 10:23 and 6:12 and 14:26; 2 Thes. 3:6; 1 Cor. 5:11); with such an one, no not to eat;” if duly pondered, would dispose you to a more favorable view, of the demurring to admit to the holy seals, in some circumstances, persons we believe to be saints. Suppose, Sir, you reckoned the whole nation, yourself not excepted, deep sworn to oppose the abominations of Antichrist, would you cheerfully admit a Papist, whom you accounted a saint? Would you esteem his resolute supporting of the man of sin, no degree of scandal? Would your cheerful admission of him in his impenitency, conduce to convince him in thinking well of it; and thus render you a partaker in Babylon’s sins and plagues? Suppose you believed Presbyterian government founded on the word of God; and the whole nation by solemn oath bound to maintain it: suppose you believed persons intruded into the pastoral function, climbed up some other way than by the door, and were spiritual thieves and robbers: suppose you esteemed such ministers, as are habitually indolent and unfaithful in what is good, but active and obstinate in overturning the cause of God, to be guilty of scandal; would you reckon it no way offensive to contemn said government; or obstinately to cleave to such a pastor, as a faithful minister? Would you reckon the ready admission of him that did so, a means to convince him of his guilt? If it did not, would it prove an HOLY and EDIFYING fellowship to him? Or if it hardened others in anything sinful, tempting them to think contemptibly of some point of reformation, or favorably of some defection; if, at the same time, it grieved some of the more circumspect in the congregation, in which he was admitted; if, too, he had open access and full freedom to receive the sacraments elsewhere; could it conduce to an holy and edifying fellowship, to admit him with you? For the admission of one or two saints, who have full freedom and access elsewhere to receive these sacred seals, could it be expedient or holy, to harden some in their sin, to grieve the heart of others more tender, or to introduce disturbance into a congregation? To do this for the sake of one or two saints, who in some things live contrary to the laws of Heaven, and their own solemn vow, would it be holy, expedient, or edifying? Would it prove an holy and edifying fellowship, should you admit such to these sacred seals, whom, in case of the most notorious scandal, immediately after, you could do nothing to censure? If an indifferent practice, such as eating of flesh, is to be forborne, while the world standeth, if it make our brother offend; if by it, we grieve, we destroy our weak brother, for whom Christ died (1 Cor. 8:11-13; Rom. 14:13-23); how is it possible, he who does anything, not commanded of God, which tends to stumble or grieve any of his fellow Christians, can be free of some degree of scandal; some sin against Christ? Suppose he be a saint, is not his disobedience to God, his cruelty to his brother, his disregard of the peace of the church, a considerable crime? Is he very worthy of the communion of saints, who in such cases, if he has a faith of liberty, does not at Christ’s command keep it to himself (Rom. 14:20-23)? On the whole, to me it appears, no term of Christian fellowship, not stated in scripture, is ever to be imposed; or can, without Popish usurpation of the power of Christ, and tyranny over the consciences of men: and that, especially in a broken state of the church, no small prudence is necessary to order her fellowship so, as my best promote the glory of God, and the holiness and edification of men.