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THE GOVERNMENT OF A CHURCH.
Every one is aware that no society can exist without government. Observation, testimony, our knowledge of human nature, combine to assure us that if a number of men, set loose from all control, were brought together, the cunning would overreach the simple,--the strong would oppress the weak,—the wise would triumph over the ignorant ; — yea, all would bite and devour one another. The members of a Christian church must, then, be subjected to government. Now, as this is the case, there arises the following very interesting and important inquiry, viz., “ Have we a divinelyinstituted form of government or not ? ”
There are not a few who maintain the negative side of this question. They contend, that the government of the church is what has been called ambulatory; or, in other words, that it is left to the wisdom of men to vary
the form of government, or, rather, to select and adopt any form which may appear most congruous with the previous customs, habits, opinions, or prejudices of those among whom the church is planted. Others maintain, on the other hand, that at least the great outlines of a form of church government are laid down in the New Testament; and that we are acccordingly bound to establish every
Christian church, in the present day, on this prescribed plan.
Against the first opinion, the à priori and the à posteriori arguments have been employed.
First. The statements in the à priori argument are to the following effect :--that, as no human society can exist without government, it is not credible that Christ has left a society so important as the church without directions on this point ;-that human wisdom is incompetent to frame a code of laws, being liable to err even in temporal, and far more in spiritual concerns;—that, when the great ends of church government are considered, it cannot fail to appear of the utmost importance that sufficient directions on this point should be given ; as the credit of religion, the advancement of piety and holiness, the encouragement of the good, and the restraint of the bad, so much depend upon a due administration of the laws, that a form of government was as necessary to the Christian, as to the Jewish church. It is, consequently, not to be supposed, that, while the government of the latter was so exactly delineated, that of the former is left to the invention and decision of fallible men!
Secondly. The reasonings in the à posteriori argument are derived from Divine revelation ; which, it is affirmed, either by direct statement, or by precedent in the practice of the first churches, or by necessary inference from what is written, supplies us, as it has been said, with the great outlines of church government.
It might have been added to the statements in the à priori argument, that if we have no divinely-revealed rule of government, it is manifest that no particular form can, in that case, be adopted and practised as an act of subjection to the authority of God. Christianity sinks, in reference to church government, to a level with the wild and senseless liberalism of ancient paganism, which did not hesitate to declare that the Roman deities were, properly, the gods of Rome,—the Grecian, the gods of Greece. Episcopacy may be the proper form for England, Presbyterianism for Scotland :-Episcopalianism for the higher orders, -Congregationalism or Methodism for the lower. For my own part, I acknowledge that I can never believe this,—that there is no right and wrong on a point of so great magnitude,-or that right and wrong can thus be determined by geographical boundaries, or artificial distinctions of rank and station. If I did not believe that the Congregational form of church government, in its essential characteristics at least, rests on the basis of Divine revelation, I should never urge its claims upon the attention of a single human being. On the ground of expediency I would not argue them, though they might be placed on that ground. I should leave every man to follow out that plan which he might deem best, assured that all, in their choice and determinations, would be equally acceptable to God.
But, then, if there be a divinely-appointed rule of church government, how comes it to pass that so many different opinions on this point prevail in the world? Might not a similar question, we ask, be put in reference to differences of opinion in relation to doctrinal subjects ? If God has given a sufficiently distinct revelation of the person of Christ, for instance, how comes it to pass that some believe him to have been merely a man, and others, “God over all, blessed for evermore? ” If, in the latter case, difference of opinion does not imply defect in the revelation, neither does it, in the former case, suppose impenetrable obscurity in the rule. “ But all Christians agree,” we may be told,“ in their views of the person of Christ : this is not, accordingly, a fair illustration.” Take, then, we reply, a
case in which Christians differ in opinion ;-take the difference which exists between the Calvinists and Arminians, or between the Pædobaptists and the Anti-Pædobaptists. Is the difference, in either of these cases, to be ascribed to a deficiency of clearness and fulness in the revelation ? or to one or other of those various causes which may lead minds, on the whole conscientious, to embrace an erroneous opinion? I feel no hesitation in ascribing it to the latter source. I would shield the Author of the Bible from the charge of having, like the Pagan oracles, veiled his communications in doubtfulness and ambiguity. Differences of opinion are to be ascribed to heedlessness, haste, prejudice, self-interest, and other causes ; operating, it may be, unconsciously upon those who are subject to their influence ; not to the darkness and uncertainty of Divine communications.
With the view of explaining and establishing the scriptural authority of the Congregational mode of church government, we shall place it in the light of contrast with several others; and, first, with the
This mode of government maintains that there is a visible head of the church on earth, and that this head is the bishop of Rome, having the right of dominion over the whole Christian world, as the successor of Peter, formerly bishop of Rome, and who left, at his death, all his authority and prerogatives to those who should succeed him in that see. In opposition to this form of church government, it has been very justly argued that it rests on the three following assumptions, any of which giving way, subverts the whole system :
It assumes, for instance, that Peter was the bishop of Rome,—that he possessed supremacy over the other apostles,—and that he had authority to transmit, and actually did transmit, this supremacy to his successors in the see of Rome.
Against the first assumption, that Peter was bishop of Rome, we maintain that the New Testament does not afford it even the shadow of support. No proof is supplied by this source that Peter was ever at Rome, far less that he was its bishop. The probabilities are, indeed, all on the other side. Paul wrote a long letter to Rome, in which, though he directs his salutations to be given to numbers, he does not mention Peter. Could Peter, then, have been the bishop of Rome, or even a resident in that city? Again : Paul wrote several epistles from Rome, during a residence in that
is as “ that
city extending to two full years ; but not one of them contains
reference to Peter. We maintain, further, in opposition to the assumption, that the nature of the apostolical office sustained by Peter rendered it impossible for him to assume that of bishop. He was not, consequently, the bishop of Rome.
The primitive bishops resided in one place, and had the charge of the church which existed there; but the apostles were appointed to be “ witnesses to the Lord, both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth,” Acts i. 8.
Against the second assumption, viz., that Peter possessed supremacy over the other apostles, we argue that the Catholics have mistaken the meaning of the only passage to which they appeal for its support. That passage follows: “And I
also unto thee,” said Christ, thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my
church: and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven ; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven ; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven,” Matt. xvi. 18, 19.
It were easy to show that the term rock, though it contains an allusion to the name, does not mean the person, but the confession of Peter. This is not, however, necessary; since, whatever be its meaning, and whatever be the power of the keys which are here said to be given to Peter, the Roman Catholics must be able to show that the words confer an exclusive distinction upon Peter,-one in which his brethren in the apostleship did not participate,—or how could they raise him to supremacy? It is, however, clearly and absolutely impossible that they should do this. For, in the first place, the whole church is declared by Paul, Eph. i. 20, to be built upon the foundation, not of Peter only, but of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner-stone; and, in the second place, the power of the keys was afterwards conferred upon the other apostles. For what is the