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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
John Quincy Adams
From Baptists: The Only Thorough Religious Reformers, 1854
"One is your Master, even Christ, and all ye are brethren." Matt. 23:8
One of the most inveterate sins of fallen humanity is pride. Man thirsts for power. He loves to be elevated above his fellows, and to occupy a position of acknowledged superiority. He delights to be clothed with a little brief authority, which will enable him to look on all around him as his inferiors. It is the working of this spirit of arrogance and assumption that has created so many grades among men, both in the world and the church.
The disciples of Christ were infected with this spirit. They had imbibed it from the Jewish rabbis—the Scribes and Pharisees. They thirsted for the possession of such a degree of power and authority, as would entitle them to dictate to and rule over their brethren. Hence we find them frequently disputing who should be the greatest. Christ invariably rebuked this spirit on every occasion of its manifestation. He taught them humility. He showed them that the principles of His Gospel were opposed to all such sentiments of pride, and that instead of favoring the arrogant wishes of depraved humanity, it was designed to convert mankind into a universal brotherhood, all possessing equal rights, acknowledging but one Head, one Superior, one Master, even Himself. He taught that His church was to bean association of brethren, all its members subject to one law, and all amenable to one tribunal, the voice of the church.
But how sadly has the teaching of Christ on this subject been perverted, and the professedly Christian church, instead of presenting to us they beautiful picture of a band of brethren, meeting together on the broad platform of equality, exhibits an array of gradations in authority, which vies with the most despotic governments of the world. Priestly arrogance and ministerial assumption of authority is exhibited on almost every hand, in both the Protestant and Papal churches and from the class leader to the mitred bishop— from the ruling elder to the triple-crowned Pope there is in violation of Christ's declaration: "One is your master even Christ, and all ye are brethren."
Reform here is needed; and I announce therefore, as the Fourth Feature of the Reform in which Baptists are engaged, The Establishment of the Equality of Christ's Disciples.
I. It will devolve on me to show, in the first place, that such equality does not generally exist. In Romish and Protestant churches there is no recognition of equality among professed disciples of Christ. I suppose I need not stop to prove this assertion in reference to Romanism. All acknowledge that there are grades of power, both temporal and ecclesiastical, in that church. Even her most devoted adherents will not deny it. On the contrary, they admit and defend it.
Let us, then, turn to the Protestant churches. And first, we will notice the Episcopal. Does this church recognize equality among her, members? We reply, No! She has distinct and separate grades; and not only is the ministry above the laity, but there are three grades in the ministry: deacons, priests, and bishops. In England, the bishops of this church, by virtue of their office, are clothed with temporal power. They are peers of the realm—that is, nobles of the land. The archbishop of Canterbury, has the appointment of all the bishops, and is the highest nobleman of England. The archbishops hold authority over all the bishops.
The bishops hold authority over all the churches, and inferior clergy, in their respective dioceses. They appoint ministers to their charges; they suspend, degrade and excommunicate them. In America there are no archbishops. But the bishops, though possessing no civil power—on account of our republican institutions—have the same ecclesiastical power as those in England. The church has no voice in her government. In the Triennial Convention, the bishops form a separate house distinct and superior to the clergy and laity. The appropriate language of the bishops in England would be: "One is our Master, the archbishop, and all we are lords;" while in England and America there is no recognition of the equality taught by Christ.
But let us look again at the Presbyterian church. Does equality reign here? Do all her members stand on the broad even platform of the Gospel? Can they say, "One is our Master, even Christ?" Let them answer for themselves. Both in their Confession of Faith and Form of Government, we find that the government rests not in the hands of the church, but in the session, presbytery, synod and General Assembly. These bodies attend to all the business of the church. An individual church has no power to act in the reception of members, the exclusion of members, the calling or dismissing of a pastor, or any other act of government which Christ has committed to his church. Other masters are recognized besides Him.
The whole tendency of Presbyterian church government is to exalt the ministry in their authority above the church. Indeed, the ministry belong to a different order. They do not belong to the church as the other members do; they belong to the Presbytery. The church cannot discipline a minister; neither can the session try him; but the presbytery must do it. Lest these assertions should startle any who have never examined the subject, permit me to give a few quotations from printed documents.
The Westminster Confession says:
"The Lord Jesus, as king and head of His church, has therein appointed a government the hand of church officers. To these officers, the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed, by virtue whereof they have power, respectively, to retain and remit sins, to shut that kingdom against the impenitent, both by the word and censures, and to open it unto penitent sinners as occasion shall require." (Westminster Confession, chap. xxx. sec. 1, 2)
(Is it not surprising that a church claiming to be so orthodox as the Presbyterian, should retain in its Confession of Faith, a section tending so directly to bolster up the Romish doctrine of priestly absolution? Suppose an honest inquirer after truth in the Romish church should meet this, in his researches, would he not begin to think, and with good reason, that Presbyterianism and Romanism differ only in name?)
These officers we are told, by the Form of Government; are "Bishops or pastors, ruling elders and deacons." The same Form of Government gives us the character of all the different bodies composed by these officers, for the government of the church. "The church session consists of the pastor or pastors, and ruling elders of a particular congregation;" and "it is expedient, at every meeting of the session, that there be a presiding minister. When, therefore, a church is without a pastor, the moderator of the session shall be either the minister appointed by the presbytery for that purpose, or one invited by the session." Again, we are told that among other things "it is the duty of the session to receive members into the church, or exclude from the church those who deserve it, and to appoint delegates to the higher judicatories of the church.” (Form of Government, sections 1, 4, 6)
The church cannot act in receiving her own members. The session attends to this for her. A majority of the members of the church might be opposed to the reception of an individual, but if the session receive him, he is admitted. On the other hand, a person may fall under the censure of the session, and though all the church beside may esteem him a Christian, the session has power to exclude and excommunicate him. Is this equality? This is more fully exhibited in the Directory for Worship.
We are told that when baptized children:
"come to years of discretion, if they be free from scandal, appear sober and steady, and to have sufficient knowledge to discern the Lord's body, they ought to be informed it is their duty and privilege to come to the Lord's Supper. The years of discretion in young Christians cannot be precisely fixed. This must be left to the prudence of the eldership. The officers of the church are the judges of the qualifications of those to be admitted to sealing ordinances, and of the time when it is proper to admit young Christians to them." (Directory for Worship, chap. 9, sec. 1, 2)
It is here implied that the church, that is, the inferior members of it, as distinct from the session, is not possessed of sufficient prudence to judge of the qualifications of those who are to be admitted to the Lord's Table with them.
But further, the Presbytery has power over the session and the church. By this body the rights of the church to call and dismiss a pastor are taken away. When a Presbyterian church calls a pastor, the call is not made to him, but to the Presbytery. "The call shall be presented to the Presbytery under whose care the person called shall be; that, if the Presbytery think it expedient to present the call to him, it may be accordingly presented; and no minister or candidate shall receive a call, but through the hands of a Presbytery."(Form of Government, chap. xv. sec. 9)
So, also, the minister himself is subject, not to the church, but to the Presbytery. He cannot move without the permission of this body. "No pastor shall be translated from one church to another, nor shall he receive any call for that purpose, but by the permission of the Presbytery." "The Presbytery, on the whole view of the case, shall either continue him in his former charge, or translate him, as they shall deem most for the peace and edification of the church." (Form of Government, chap. xvi. sec. 1) It is here implied that the Presbytery is more competent to judge of the affairs of a church, and to decide what is for its good, than the church itself. The church may think it best for their pastor to remove from them, but the Presbytery may think it best for him to stay; the only alternative the church has, is to starve him out, and then let them get another pastor when they can. This system is degrading to freemen, and insulting to Christianity!
Next to the Presbytery, is the Synod, and then the General Assembly. The Session must submit its doings to the Presbytery, the Presbytery to the Synod, and the Synod to the General Assembly. Is this equality?
The Dutch Reformed church is governed in a manner similar to the Presbyterian. The Protestant Methodist is more despotic than either.
Let us turn our attention for a moment to the Methodist Episcopal Church. Shall we find equality here? No; for its very name shows that its government is prelatical. I need not enlarge on this point, for no one, surely, will pretend that there is equality in this church. Its founder expressly disavows any idea of it. He says, in a letter to John Mason, dated Jan. 13, 1790, "As long as I live, the people shall have no share in, choosing either stewards or leaders among the Methodists. We are no republicans, and never intend to be. It would be better for those who are so minded to go quietly away." There are more grades in the Methodist Episcopal Church than in any other Protestant community, and anyone who will read the "Discipline," will be convinced of it.
A private member in the church has no voice in the government whatever. Private members are amenable to the class-leader, the class-leader to the preacher—the preacher to the presiding elder—the presiding elder to the bishop. Is this equality? The people have no voice in electing or dismissing their preacher, but must take whoever is sent, and let him go at the expiration of two years. The preacher has no choice of his field of labor. He must go just where the bishop may please to send him. The degraded and humiliating position of Methodist preachers is beginning to be felt by them keenly. Said one to a Baptist minister, not long since:
"I look and long for the time when there will be something like freedom in the Methodist church. On the last day of Conference, the great day of dispensations, I go to the meeting with my saddle-bags on my arm, having packed up my goods before I left my last place. The Bishop says: ‘Brother A., go to such a place.’ ‘Sir, that is an unhealthy region, and my family is predisposed to the sickness that prevails there. May I not go yonder?’ ‘Go right along, sir,’ says the Bishop; and go I must. I hope it will not always be thus."
The church does not receive or expel either her ministers or members. The circuit preacher has power to expel private members—the quarterly conference to expel local preachers, deacons and elderly —the yearly conference to expel travelling preachers- the general conference to expel bishops. Is this equality? Just read the following question and answer in the Methodist Discipline, in reference to the ordination of an elder, and then read the text:
"Will you reverently obey your chief ministers, unto whom is committed the charge and government over you; following with a glad mind and will their godly admonitions, and submitting yourself to their godly judgments?
"I will do so, the Lord being my helper."
(Discipline, part II. chap. iii. sec. 2)
Chief ministers! Chief minister! Who are they? "One is your master, even Christ, and all ye are brethren." Surely, the language of Christ, and the language of the Discipline are very dissimilar. I do not wish to say anything harsh or severe. I simply desire to present facts, that all may judge, whether, in any of these bodies, there is that equality taught by the Saviour. These churches, whose forms of government I have reviewed, compose the great majority of the professedly Christian world. It is evident, then, that such equality as the text teaches does not generally exist.
II. I proceed to show, in the second place, that Baptists seek to establish such equality. The principles of church government in the Baptist denomination are expressed in the text: "One is your master, even Christ, and all ye are brethren." There is no opportunity for the assumption of authority by a few, if it were desired. All meet on the broad, even platform of equality. The rich and the poor, the minister and people, are all brethren. The pastor is no more; the poorest member is no less, than one of the brethren. Each church, in its collective capacity, transacts its own business, exercises its own discipline, and receives and excludes its own members, subject only to the authority of Christ, and governed only by His Word.
On all questions, every member of the church has an equal right to speak and to vote. There is no authority superior to the church, to reverse its decisions, or to call it to account. The pastor, while he has no superior authority, has equal rights with the rest of his brethren. If called to another field of labor, he is at liberty to go or not without asking leave of a bishop, presbytery, or council. He is perfectly free to act in accordance with his own views of duty, and his own convictions of right.
In a Baptist church there is perfect equality. It could not be otherwise. They recognize the church as a voluntary organization, into which persons enter by their own choice, and whose privileges and benefits all have an equal right to share. Christ has nowhere delegated His authority to a body of arrogant ministers, or prelatical bishops, or blasphemous popes; and Christians have no right to recognize and uphold the assumption of authority by them. It is not a matter of indifference.
To support the assumptions of men, who have arrogated to themselves authority which belongs only to Christ, is to engage with them in rebellion against the one only Master; and where this is done knowingly, such cannot be held guiltless. In laboring, then, to advance Baptist sentiments, we aim to exalt Christ as the supreme and only Lawgiver and Ruler in Zion, in the place of presbyters, and bishops, and councils, and popes, who have usurped his throne.
But some suppose that every church has a right to make its own laws, and to alter these laws to suit times, and circumstances, and places. Now, if the church was a merely human organization, this might be correct reasoning. But all churches claim to be of divine origin, and to have divine authority for their constitution and government. It is evident therefore that all cannot be right, for God cannot sanction contradictions. Further, if every church has a right to establish its own form of government, then the Romish church has an equal right with any Protestant church to invent and establish one, and no Protestant who takes this ground can consistently say a word against the Papal hierarchy.
And if all are right, then right and wrong are no longer opposites. But all are not right. Christ has taught, in His Word, that the highest authority on earth is the church. Hence, in giving His apostles directions how to proceed in cases of offence, He designates the church as the supreme and final umpire. "Tell it to the church; and if he neglect to hear the church, let him be to thee as an heathen man and a publican." (Matt. 18:17)
Tell it to the church; not to the session, or presbytery, or synod, or general assembly, or council, or conference, or bishop, or cardinal, or pope, but to the church; and if he neglect to hear the church—what then? Appeal? No; there is no higher authority to appeal to; for "One is your master, even Christ, and all ye are brethren." The creation of other tribunals is the result of the arrogance of men who love to “lord it over God's heritage;" (I Pet. 5:3) and the support of them is owing mainly to the influence of just such men, and their willing dupes. Baptists are willing to be "all brethren;" the ministry have no desire to be exalted to a position of rivalry to the Master, in his church.
In order more forcibly to exhibit the contrast between Baptists and the other most prominent sects, let us suppose Christ to come again upon earth, and visit the places of worship, in New York City, and preach from this text. See him enter St. Patrick's cathedral. The Archbishop receives Him very graciously, elated with the idea that the claim of Rome to be THE Church is thus sanctioned by the Saviour, and he invites Him to preach. He announces this text, and preaches as He did upon the plains of Judea: "Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles, exercise lordship over them, and their great ones exercise authority upon them; but so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you shall be your minister; and whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all.” “Be not ye called Rabbi; for one is your Master, even Christ, and all ye are brethren." (Mark 10:41-43; Matt. 23:8)
The Archbishop grows uneasy; he reminds the Preacher of the Pope, the Cardinals, the Archbishops, the Bishops, the Father Confessors, the Priests; but the Divine Teacher asserts that these are distinctions which men have made, and reiterates the doctrine of the text—universal equality among his disciples. The Archbishop denounces the Saviour as a heretic, and he is thrust out.
He then winds His way through our great thoroughfare to Trinity Church. Here he is cordially received, for the Episcopal also claims to be THE Church, and here He repeats the sermon. But he is reminded of the Fathers, the Archbishops, the Bishops, the Triennial Convention, the Priests, the Deacons. He pronounces these grades all contrary to His teaching. The Bishop intimates that He is probably a fanatical dissenter, and He is politely handed to the door.
He visits in succession a Presbyterian and a Methodist congregation with the same sermon; in the former He is reminded of the Session, Presbytery, Synod, General Assembly; in the latter, He is cautioned about the "chief ministers;" and the Class-leader, Steward, Preacher, Presiding Elder, Bishop, with their respective powers, are set before Him; and for simply reiterating His own teachings, He is treated as a disturber of the peace, and put out of both places.
See Him now seek a Baptist pulpit. His sermon is just in accordance with their practice. There is nothing among them with which it comes in contact; no grades—none to exercise lordship or authority over them: "For one is their Master, even Christ, and all they are brethren." A sincere "Amen," is the response from every heart, and the world's Redeemer, banished from the Romish and the Protestant churches, finds a refuge and a home in every Baptist congregation.