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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
From Baptist Principles
In the progress of our discussion we are now ready for a consideration of the church. We have seen that the kingdom and the church are different The church is or may be of the kingdom. It is not that kingdom, neither in area nor in form. Being, as we have said, an attitude, a spiritual condition, rather than a concrete embodiment, the kingdom can be, as it is, much wider than the church. Narrower than the kingdom the church likewise is more formal, more palpable, more material.
It has been compelled to organize, and it has organized. It has established its polity, it has formulated its creeds, it has ordained its officers, it has prescribed its worship, it has projected its ministries. And yet, different as the church is from the kingdom, when it has been true to the original and scriptural ideal, the key, the faith," which has admitted to the one, is the key that has unlocked the door of the other. To the questioner asking " May I become a member of the church ? " the true answer has ever been, "If thou believest thou mayest."
What then is this church of which we speak, and with which the world has so much to do, and of which it really knows so little? It is a company of baptized believers, organized to proclaim Christ's truth, to administer his ordinances, and to perpetuate his ministry. Its organization is mutual association; its ordinances, baptism and the Supper; its officers, pastors and deacons; and its binding creed, love to God and love to men. These elements of church organization are found in the New Testament, and beyond them there is no warrant for the intricate and elaborate ecclesiastical machinery that has been devised, nor for the absolute human authority it has been sought to impose.
The church to be true to its fundamental principles must be a democracy. The soul's individual relationship to God, the necessity of faith as a guide into the kingdom, and the priesthood and kingship of each believer, all demand the form of a democracy in which it shall stand before the world. There is no provision for bishop or pope to lord it over God's heritage. " One is your teacher," said Jesus, " and all ye are brethren."
There can be within its confines no oppressive conclave to force adherence to its despotic behests. " There is no conceivable justification," says Doctor Mullins, " for lodging ecclesiastical authority in the hands of an infallible pope or a bench of bishops. Democracy in church government is an inevitable corollary of the general doctrine of the soul's competency in religion."
There is an organization, but it has no authority save for its own preservation. It may exclude from its body, but it has no power beyond. No rack or prison or any form of compulsion belongs to it, as has been so often claimed to the infinite sorrow of myriads of human lives. There are officers, to be sure, but they are primi infer pares (Latin: the first among equals). They are elevated because of service. There is no promotion for them but through ministry. They have authority, but only that which all have who possess that which shall benefit others.
It has a creed, as all associations must have in some form that would hold together, but one may differ therefrom without forfeiting his membership or justly incurring the censure of his brethren. There is no supremacy that does not embrace the equality of all, and there is no authority that-does not scrupulously conserve the rights of each.
Baptists have always tenaciously and consistently held to the views thus briefly set forth. They have held to them too, when to hold thus has meant the whip or the prison or even the stake. The church to them has always been a spiritual body. No rite or external act or sacerdotal incantation has with them been permitted to take the place of personal faith in Jesus Christ.
" Dost thou believe ? " has ever been their question to those seeking admission to the church. If the answer has been in the affirmative, then the door has opened. If the reply has been No, then despite position and influence or what not, if the right has been maintained, the way has been barred.
As to the Baptists the church has been ever spiritual, so has it always been a democracy. No ecclesiastic, whether high or low, whether Anglican or Roman; no organized body, whether called presbytery, or assembly, or conference, or council has ever been permitted by Baptists to usurp authority over them.
Says Dr. A. H. Strong on this point: "While Christ is sole King, the government of the church so far as regards the interpretation and execution of his will, is an absolute democracy in which the whole body of members is entrusted with the duty and responsibility of carrying out the laws of Christ as expressed in his word."
There is therefore no idea among them of a " world Church," governed by one central head, such as is held at Rome. There is no thought of a national Church as exists in England, with the primate and the sovereign in control. There is among them nothing approaching the associated body affiliated for legislation as well as for counsel, as among the Presbyterians and Methodists.
There is not among them even the authoritative council as among the Congregationalists, the Christian body of all their brethren most nearly akin to them in polity. Among Baptists the local church is the final court of appeal. That organizes, that ordains, that institutes. It is correct therefore to say Baptist churches and not the Baptist Church. There are thousands of these, but all together they do not constitute that. And yet there is no lack of associated effort.