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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
James Madison Pendleton
From the book, Distinctive Principles of Baptists, 1888
In proof and in illustration of this proposition the following facts are submitted:
In Rom. 14:1 it is written: "Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations." What is the meaning of the first clause of this verse? Its import is obviously this: Receive into your fellowship, and treat as a Christian, the man who is weak in faith. The paraphrase of Mr. Barnes is, "Admit to your society or fellowship, receive him kindly." There is unquestionably a command: "RECEIVE YE."
To whom is this command addressed? To bishops? It is not. To the "Session of the church," composed of the pastor and the "ruling elders"? No. To whom then? To the very persons to whom the Epistle was addressed; and it was written "to all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints" (Rom. 1:7).
No ingenuity can torture this language into a command given to the officers of the church in Rome. The members of the church—whose designation was "saints"—were addressed, and they were commanded to "receive the weak in faith." It was their business to decide who should be admitted into their brotherhood; and Paul, under the impulses of inspiration, says, "Him that is weak in the faith receive ye." It was, of course, their duty to withhold their fellowship from those who had no faith. The right of the apostolic churches to withdraw their fellowship from unworthy members (II Thess. 3:6) plainly implies their right to receive persons of proper qualifications into their fellowship. It is inconceivable that they had the authority to exclude, but not to receive, members.
I now proceed to show that the New Testament churches exercised the right of excluding unworthy members. In I Cor. 5: 1-5 we read as follows:
"It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father's wife. And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that bath done this deed might be taken away from among you. For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such a one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus."
It is quite worthy of remark that, while Paul "judged" that the incestuous member ought to be excluded from the church, he did not exclude him. He had no right to do so, and did not claim the right.
The same apostle said to the "churches of Galatia," "I would they were even cut off which trouble you" (Gal. 5:12); but he did not cut them off, though he desired it to be done and advised that it should be done.
It is worthy of notice too that the members of the Corinthian church could not, in their individual capacity, exclude the incestuous man. It was necessary to their action in the premises that they should be "gathered together." They must assemble as a church and exemplify the doctrine of a pure democracy. Thus assembling, "the power of our Lord Jesus Christ" was to be with them. They were to act by his authority and to execute his will; for he makes it incumbent on his churches to administer discipline.
In the last verse of the chapter referred to, Paul says: "Put away from among yourselves that wicked person." Here is a command, given by an inspired man, requiring the exclusion of an unworthy member of the church at Corinth. To whom was the command addressed? To the officials of the church?
No, but "unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints."
The right of a church to exclude disorderly persons from its fellowship is recognized in these words: "Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly" (II Thess. 3:6). This command was addressed "to the church of the Thessalonians." To "withdraw" from a "disorderly brother" is the same thing as to exclude him. There is a cessation of church fellowship.
I have not referred to Matt. 18: 17, because I shall notice it in another place. The reader will see on examination that the passage clearly shows the power of "the church" to perform the act of excommunication by which the member cut off becomes "as a heathen man and a publican."
It is not more evident that New-Testament churches received and excluded members than that they restored excluded members who gave satisfactory evidence of penitence. In II Cor. 2:6-8 the "incestuous man" is again referred to, as follows: "Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted of many. So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be-swallowed up with overmuch sorrow. Wherefore I beseech you that ye would confirm your love toward him."
Paul manages this case with the greatest delicacy and tenderness. He refers to the excluded member without the least allusion to the disgraceful offence for which he was excluded. "Sufficient," says he, "is this punishment"—that is, the object of the exclusion had been accomplished.
The church had shown its determination not to connive at sin, and the excluded member had become penitent. But the point under consideration is that the apostle advised the restoration of the penitent offender. Paul could no more restore him to the church than he could exclude him from it; but he says, "I beseech you that ye would confirm your love toward him."
The power and the right to restore were with the church, and Paul solicits an exercise of the power and of the right. The great apostle, in saying "I beseech you," bows to the majesty of the doctrine of church independence. He virtually admits that nothing could be done unless the church chose to act.
In this connection one fact should be carefully observed: The power of the Corinthian church to restore this excluded member is unquestionable. The fact which deserves special notice and emphasis is that the power, in apostolic churches, to restore excluded members implies the power of receiving members, and also of expelling the unworthy.
Without a first reception there could be no exclusion, and without exclusion there could be no subsequent restoration. Thus the act of restoration irresistibly implies the two previous acts of reception and exclusion. Now, if the New-Testament churches had the power and the right to do these three things, they must have had the power and the right to transact any other business coming before them.
Nothing can be of more vital importance to the welfare, and even to the existence, of a church than the reception, the exclusion, and the restoration of members. There are no three acts whose influence on the organic structure and prosperity of a church is so great; and these acts the churches of the New Testament undoubtedly performed.
Here I might let the foundation principle of church independency rest; but there is other proof of the New Testament recognition of that principle.