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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
There are three forms of church government or polity: the Episcopalian, the Presbyterian, and the Congregational. Episcopacy is government by Bishops; Presbyterianism is government by presbyters or preachers; Congregationalism is government by the people—a pure Democracy.
Baptists are Congregationalists. They do not claim the right to make or repeal laws, but recognize and obey the unchanging law of their King, Jesus Christ. But in the execution of these laws of the Lord there is a pure Democracy. Baptists regard the Scriptures as the only and all sufficient rule of faith and practice (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
The church has no right to change one word of the Scriptures. It is the duty of the church to obey the Scriptures. The Scriptures teach that each congregation is entirely independent of every other congregation, and that to each congregation the Commission was given. Each congregation is a complete church in itself. It is therefore not correct to speak of “The Baptist Church.” There is no such thing. There are thousands of Baptist churches, as each congregation of baptized believers is a church, but these congregations are not combined in any way so as to make the one great Baptist Church. There are many trees in the forest, but there is no such thing as THE TREE.
In speaking of the duties and doctrines of “the church” we mean any Scriptural church, just as we speak of the duties of “the husband” and “the wife.” When we say “the husband” or “the wife” we do not mean that there is a great HUSBAND composed of all the husbands, and when we say “the wife” we do not mean a large WIFE composed of all the wives. Even so, when we speak of the Commission being given to “the church,” we do not mean a great Universal Church, but we mean each individual congregation.
The following passage indicates the New Testament idea (Eph. 5:23): “For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church.”
We may as well talk about a great Universal Husband or a great Universal Wife as to talk of a great Universal Church.
In the New Testament we learn the following facts:
1. The congregation received members. Rom. 14:1, “Him that is weak in the faith receive ye.” The membership is here commanded to “receive” into their fellowship the weak in the faith. It is certain that the membership is told to do the receiving because the epistle is addressed, not to the “bishops,” not to “the session,” but “to all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints.” The whole church must therefore receive the new converts. The specification of one thing in law is the prohibition of everything else. Since therefore the whole church is commanded to “receive” it follows that the pastors, “the session,” or anything else violates the law of God when they presume to receive members. This duty must continue to rest on the church as a whole.
2. The congregations excluded members from their fellowship. 1 Cor. 5:1-5: “It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you,... In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power (authority) of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh,” etc. The church must be “gathered together,” to exclude the fornicator. There was no “board of deacons” or “board of stewards,” or “session” or bunch of “elders” to get off in a corner and do this work. The power to exclude carries with it the power to restore. In 2 Cor. 2:6-8, we read that this fornicator should be restored after he had repented: “Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted of many. So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him,” etc.
We note the fact that Paul says this punishment was inflicted of “many”; literally, “by the majority.” “Pleionon” is the Greek word used. In case of personal offenses, the party offended must first labor for reconciliation between him and the offender alone. This failing, he must take witnesses with him, and in the presence of these witnesses, make another effort for reconciliation. If this second effort fails, he must “tell it unto the church,” and if this fails, excommunication follows. “Let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.” (Matt. 18:16-18.)
3. The congregations elected their own officers. Acts 6:1-6: “Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men,” etc. “The multitude” had been called together and the apostles instructed the whole multitude to “look out among you seven men.”
The selection or election of the “multitude” was accepted by the apostles. Then the apostles “had prayed, they laid their hands on them”—ordained them, as Baptists do today. Acts 14:23: “And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord.”
The Greek, of which this passage is a translation, literally means: “And when they had elected elders in every church by a show of the hands.” The Greek word used is “cheirotonein,” meaning to “stretch forth the hand.” Phillip Schaff, the modern Lutheran historian, in his great book, Apostolic Church page 501, says :
“As to Presbyters—bishops (pastors), Luke informs us (Acts 14:23) that Paul and Barnabas appointed them to office in the newly founded congregations by taking the vote of the people, thus merely presiding over the choice. Such, at least, is the original and usual sense of ‘cheirotonein.’”
4. The congregations elected their own missionaries. Acts 11:22-24: “Then tidings of these things came unto the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem: and they sent forth Barnabas, that he should go as far as Antioch... he was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith: and much people was added unto the Lord.”
This fact is set forth plainly by J. M. Pendleton in his “Church Manual,” page 110:
“The churches in Apostolic times sent forth ministers on missionary tours. When Antioch received the Word of God, the church at Jerusalem sent forth Barnabas, that he should go as far as Antioch.’ (Acts 11:22) His labors were successful, much people was added to the Lord, and at a subsequent period the church in Antioch sent out Saul and Barnabas, who made a long journey, performed much labor, returned and reported to the church all that God had done with them; Acts 13:1-3; Acts 14:26-27. With what deferential respect did these ministers of the gospel treat the church that sent them forth!”
When Dr. Pendleton wrote his Manual (1867) all Baptists agreed that churches should send out missionaries, but some are disputing this Apostolic practice now.
The conclusion is clear. It was to “the church” that the Commission was given. It is therefore the duty of the congregation to do all that the Commission enjoins. The congregation is the unit in all the work contemplated in the Commission. There is not the slightest hint in the New Testament of there being authority on earth above a congregation of baptized disciples. Where we read of “elders that rule well,” the literal rendering is the “elders that lead well.” The “elder” or bishop, which are the Scriptural terms for pastor, is a leader of his flock over which the Holy Ghost has made him overseer. But he leads by teaching, by example, and not by authority. To exercise authority is expressly forbidden by
Matt. 20:25-26: “Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you.”
In I Peter 5:3: “Neither as being lords (masters) over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock.”
The Episcopal and Presbyterian bodies have men of authority—men in control. The Master said: “It shall not be so among you.” The superintendent of missions, so common among Baptists, has authority to superintend the work of missionaries. The Master said: “It shall not be so among you.” Baptists should recognize only one Master, even Jesus Christ and only one Superintendent of Missions, even the Holy Spirit.
A gospel church may exist with or without officers. The churches (Acts 14:23) in which elders were elected existed as gospel churches before they had elders, and if they could exist as gospel churches before they had elders, it follows that if the elders should die or move away, the churches could exist again as gospel churches without them. Elders or pastors are not necessary to the existence of a church. A church is a gospel church with them or without them. So with the deacons. The church at Jerusalem was a gospel church (Acts 6) before the deacons were elected. If all the deacons should die or move away, it would continue to be a gospel church.
As Pendleton put it in his Church Manual, “Officers are not necessary to ‘the being of a church,’ but they are necessary to its well being.”