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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
J. M. Pendleton
From Distinctive Principles of Baptists, 1882
The independence of a church implies the right of a majority of its members to rule in accordance with the laws of Christ. In 2 Cor. 2:6 it is written: "Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted of many." A literal translation of the words rendered "of many" would be "by the more" — that is, by the majority.
If, as has been shown, the governmental power of a church is with the members, it follows that a majority must rule—that is to say, either the majority or the minority must govern. But it is absurd to refer to the rule of the minority. That a majority must rule is so plain a principle of Independency, and so plain a principle of common sense, that it is needless to dwell upon it.
It has been stated on a preceding page that the power of a church cannot be transferred or alienated. From this fact results the finality of church action. The church at Corinth could not transfer her authority to the church at Philippi, nor could the church at Antioch convey her power to the church at Ephesus; nor could all the apostolic churches delegate their power to an Association, a Synod, a Conference, or a Convention.
The power of a church is manifestly inalienable, and, this being true, church action is final. That there is no tribunal higher than that of a church is evident from Matt. 18:15-17:
"Moreover, if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church; but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican."
Here the Saviour lays down a rule for the settlement of grievances among brethren. If the offender, when told of his fault, does not give satisfaction, the offended party is to take with him "one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established." But if the offender "shall neglect to hear them," what is to be done? "Tell it to the church." What church? The aggregate body of the redeemed? This is equally impossible and absurd.
I ask again, what church? Evidently the local congregation to which the parties belong. If the offender does not hear the church, what then and finally? "Let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican "—that is, let the offender no longer be held in church-fellowship, but let him occupy the place of "a heathen man and a publican." There is to be an end to Christian fellowship and association. This idea cannot be more fully emphasized than by the reference to "a heathen man [a Gentile] and a publican," the most unworthy character, in Jewish estimation, to be found among Gentiles.
But can there be no appeal from the action of a single local church to an "Association" or a "Presbytery" or a "Conference"? No; there is no appeal. Shall an Association or a Presbytery or a Conference put the offender back in church-fellowship, when the church by its action classed him with heathens and publicans? This is too preposterous. What kind of fellowship would it be, when the church had declared the excluded member unworthy of its fellowship?
Will it be asked, what is to be done if the action of a church does not give satisfaction to all concerned? I answer — do what is done when the action of a Presbyterian General Assembly or a Methodist General Conference or an Episcopal General Convention does not give satisfaction. Do nothing. There must be a stopping-place; there must be final action. Baptists say, with the New Testament before them, that the action of each local congregation of baptized believers is final.
(The above reasoning takes it for granted that the excluded member is justly excluded. If so, he must give evidence of penitence, in order to his restoration. If unjustly excluded, and the church does not, when the injustice is shown, annul its action, the excluded member may apply for admission into a sister-church, which may, in the exercise of its independence, receive him without encroaching on the independence of the excluding church. The opposite view would imply that the excluding church has a monopoly of independence, which is absurd.)
Let those who oppose the Baptist form of church government show anywhere in the Scriptures the remotest allusion to an appeal from the decision of a church to any other tribunal. It cannot be done. There were, in apostolic times, no tribunals analogous to modern Synods, Conferences, or Conventions. Let those who affirm that there were such "courts of appeal" adduce the evidence. On them rests the burden of proof. Baptists deny that there is such proof, and say that for any man to furnish it is as difficult as for "a camel to go through the eye of a needle." (Matt. 19:24)
The view which I have presented of the independence of the first churches is in such full historical accordance with the facts in the case that many distinguished Pedobaptists have been obliged to concede it. They have done this while giving their practical sanction to other forms of church government. Hence Mosheim, a Lutheran and a bitter opponent of Baptists, in referring to the first century, says:
"The churches, in those early times, were entirely independent, none of them being subject to any foreign jurisdiction, but each governed by its own rulers and its own laws; for, though the churches founded by the apostles had this particular deference shown to them, that they were consulted in difficult and doubtful cases, yet they had no juridical authority, no sort of supremacy over the others, nor the least right to enact laws for them." (Maclaine's Mosheim, Baltimore edition, vol. i., p. 39)
Archbishop Whately, a dignitary of the Church of England, referring to the New-Testament churches, says: "They were each a distinct, independent community on earth, united by the common principles on which they were founded, and by their mutual agreement, affection, and respect, but not having any one recognized head on earth, or acknowledging any sovereignty of one of these societies over others."
Again: "A CHURCH and a DIOCESE seem to have been for a considerable time coextensive and identical. And each church or diocese (and consequently each superintendent), though connected with the rest by ties of faith and hope and charity, seems to have been (as has been already observed) perfectly independent, as far as regards any power of control." (Kingdom of Christ, Carter's edition, pp. 36, 44. 18)
This is strong testimony from a Lutheran and an Episcopalian. They would have given a different account of the matter if they could have done so consistently with truth. They virtually condemned their denominational organizations in writing what I have quoted. I might refer to Neander, and to many other Pedobaptists of distinction who have expressed themselves in substance as Mosheim and Whately have done; but it is needless. Baptists are not dependent on the testimony of church historians. They make their appeal to the New Testament of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
If all the church histories in the world said the monarchical or aristocratic form of church government was maintained from the death of the apostle John onward, they would not be moved by it while the New Testament represents every church as a democracy fully competent to transact its own business. "To the law and to the testimony." (Isa. 8:20) "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works." (2 Tim. 3:16, 17)
Baptists have ever regarded every church as complete in itself, independent, so far as its government is concerned, of every other church under heaven. They have watched with jealous eye all encroachments on church independence. For their views on baptism — its subjects and its act—a regenerated church membership, and the independent form of church government, they have been persecuted, tortured, put to death. Their blood has flowed like water. From their ranks have been taken martyrs who, having endured "much tribulation," (Acts 14:22) are now before the throne of God. But the principles of Baptists still live, and will live; for they are indestructible—divinely vital—cannot die.