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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
Edward T. Hiscox
From The Baptist Short Method, 1868
Baptists differ from most other denominations, in their view of what constitutes a true scriptural form of government for Christian churches. Here as elsewhere, the question should be, "What does the New Testament teach?" There are now in use three principal forms of ecclesiastical government.
1. The Prelatical - where the governing power lies in prelates, or bishops; as in the Romish, Greek, English, and most of the oriental churches.
2. The Presbyterian - where the governing power resides in assemblies, sessions, presbyteries, and synods; as in the Scottish Kirk, the Lutheran, and the various Presbyterian churches.
3. The Independent - where the governing power resides entirely in the body of the members of each single and separate church, or congregation; as among Baptists, Congregationalists, Independents, and some other small bodies.
Now which of these forms is taught in the New Testament, or best accords with the constitution and government of the apostolic churches?
Baptists hold that a Christian church is a congregation of baptized believers in Christ, worshipping together, associated by mutual covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel. Though the aggregate of the saints, the entire body of the people of God, is sometimes spoken of as "the church", yet, by churches, is meant not ecclesiastical societies, or systems of many churches confederated, but single, separate, visible congregations of Christian disciple, definitely organized, with laws, officers, ordinances, discipline, and duties as directed by Christ, maintaining his worship, and doing his work.
That such is the New Testament idea of a church seems evident from the mention made of the apostolic churches. There were "the churches throughout all Judea, and Galilee, and Samaria." Also:
"the church which was in Jerusalem" (Acts 11:22);
They "ordained them elders in every church" (Acts 14:23);
"The church of God which is at Corinth" (1 Cor. 1:2);
"The churches of Galatia" (Gal. 1:2);
"the churches of Asia" (1 Cor. 16:19);
"the churches of Macedonia" (2 Cor. 8:1);
"the church of the Laodiceans” (Col. 4:16);
"the church of the Thessalonians" (1 Thess. 1:1);
"the church that is at Babylon" (1 Pet. 5:13).
Such are the terms used, in the New Testament, to designate the churches of apostolic times.
A church is "the body," as related to Christ, who is "the head." It is a "spiritual temple," as being composed of regenerate and spiritual members, and distinguished from all secular and unsanctified organizations. In its relation to the maintenance and support of the divine law, and its proclamation and propagation of the gospel, it is "the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15).
Each such separate worshiping congregation, so organized, and so walking, is a Christian church, independent of all others, and having no ecclesiastical connection with any, though maintaining a friendly Christian intercourse with all churches of like faith and practice. It has no power to enact laws, but only to administer those which Christ has given.
The government is administered by the body of the members, where no one possesses a pre-eminence, but each enjoys an equality of rights, and in matters of opinion, the majority bears rule. The pastor exercises such control only over the body, as his official and personal influence, together with his single vote, may give him. His rule is in his teaching and guidance in matters of truth and duty, and in his directing and ordering the assemblies, whether for worship or business.
That this view of church structure and government is according to the New Testament appears evident from a study of the sacred records themselves. The apostles regarded and treated the churches as independent bodies. Their epistles are directed to the churches as such, and the members are addressed as equals among themselves. The apostles reported their doings to the churches, and enjoined upon them the duty of discipline. They recognized the right of the churches to elect their own officers; a primary and fundamental right, which being conceded supposes all other rights necessary to a self-governing community acting under divinely given laws.
Neander, the distinguished historian, says:
"The churches were taught to govern themselves." (Introduction to Coleman's Primit. Christ'y, p. 19)
"The brethren chose their own officers from among themselves." (Ch. Hist., vol. i., p. 199)
"In respect to the election to church offices, the ancient principle was still adhered to, that the consent of the community was necessary to the validity of every such election, and each one was at liberty to offer reasons against it." (Plant. and Train., p. 156)
This is said of the primitive churches, and with this view agree the most able scholars and historians.
Mosheim declares of the first century:
"In those primitive times each Christian church was composed of the people, the presiding officers, and the assistants, or deacons. These must be the component parts of every society. The principal voice was that of the people, or of the whole body of Christians."
"The assembled people, therefore, elected their own rulers and teachers."
Of the second century he adds:
"One president, or bishop, presided over each church. He was created by the common suffrages of the whole people."
"During a great part of this century, all the churches continued to be, as at first, independent of each other. Each church was a kind of small independent republic, governing itself by its own laws, enacted, or at least sanctioned, by the people." (Eccl. Hist., Cent. 1, Part 1, ch. ii., secs. 5, 6; Cent. 2, ch. ii., secs. 1, 2)
Dr. Whately says of the primitive churches: " Though there was one Lord, one faith, and one baptism for all of these, yet they were each a distinct independent community on earth, united by the common principles on which they were founded by their mutual agreement, affection, and respect." (Kingdom of Christ, pp. 101-156. N. Y. edition)
Dr. Burton says: "Every church had its own spiritual head or bishop, and was independent of every other church, with respect to its own internal regulations and laws." (Cited by Coleman, Primit. Christ'y, p. 50)
Dr. Barrow says: "At first every church was settled apart under its own bishops and presbyters, so as independently and separately to manage its own concerns. Each was governed by its own head, and had its own laws." (Treatise on Pope's Supremacy, Works, vol. 1)
Waddington says, on this subject: " It is also true, that in the earliest government of the first Christian society, that of Jerusalem, not the elders only, but the whole church, were associated with the apostles; and it is even certain that the terms bishop and elder, or presbyter, were in the first instance, and for a short period, sometimes used synonymously." (Hist. of the Ch., p. 41)
Coleman says: "These churches, wherever formed, became separate and independent bodies, competent to appoint their own officers, and administer their own government, without reference or subordination to any central authority, or foreign power. No fact connected with the history of the primitive churches is more fully established, or more generally conceded." (Primit. Christ'y, Exemp., ch. iv., sec. 4. p. 95)
Gieseler, speaking of the changes in ecclesiastical order which occurred during the second century, says: "Country churches which had grown up around some city seem, with their bishops, to have been usually, in a certain degree, under the authority of the mother church. With this exception, all the churches were alike independent, though some were especially held in honor, on such grounds as their apostolical origin, or the importance of the city in which they were situated." (Ch. Hist., Period 1, Div. 1, ch. iii., sec. 52)
That the first churches were independent bodies seems, therefore, to be clearly proved. Dr. Barrow, Dr. Burton, Abp. Whately, and not a few other Prelatists of distinction, in addition to those already cited, and the long list of authorities not prelatical, agree in this opinion. In this respect, therefore, the Baptists are clearly founded on the New Testament order of church structure and church life.