What Is It?
The Divine and inalienable rights of a Christian Church—alone commissioned to preach the Gospel—to ordain her officers—to receive, discipline and exclude members—to administer her ordinances.
"God’s house is a church of the living God, a pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15, 16).
I hold these postulates to be so self-evident to every commonly intelligent reader of God’s Word, that I will exalt them into axioms and devote this chapter to their application.
Each church is a living body, to which Christ committed both the sacred oracles and ordinances of Christianity.
The true churches are the only authorized exponents of Christ’s revelation, and of what Christianity is; and, therefore, to them is thus committed its wholeness and its symmetry.
It is admitted by all commentators that—
1. Christ commissioned His churches alone to preach His gospel.
The first commission He ever issued on earth was to that body of disciples which John called "the Bride," one of the titles of the Christian church. The last commission was to the same body on Mt. Olivet, and was but the repetition and emphasis of the first.
To the saints organized into churches—for we find no companies of unbaptized and unorganized persons spoken of as saints in the New Testament—was "the faith"—which is but another word for "the gospel," with all its ordinances—at first delivered, and, for all time, to be held by it. We can not, for one moment, conceive that Christ or His apostles committed the gospel to, and commissioned it to be preserved and preached by, those who neither experimentally understood, nor had themselves obeyed it, and whose teaching and practice tended directly to pervert and subvert it.
Paul, addressing the Hebrew churches, says: "Therefore we receiving a kingdom that can not be moved,’ etc. To Timothy he declared that "the church of the living Cod was the pillar and the ground of the truth." This teaches that to the church alone was the gospel entrusted to be preserved in its purity, and to be published to the world, for it was the ground and the pillar of the truth. Says Barnes in loco:
"Thus it is with the church. It is entrusted with the business of maintaining the truth, of defending it from the assaults of error, and of transmitting it to future times. The truth is, in fact, upheld in the world by the church. The people of the world feel no interest in defending it, and it is to the church of Christ that it is owing that it is preserved and transmitted from age to age. . . . The stability of the truth on earth is dependent on the church . . . Other systems of religion are swept away; other opinions change; other forms of doctrine vanish; but the knowledge of the great system of redemption is preserved on earth unshaken, because the church is preserved and its foundations can not be moved. As certainly as the church continues to live, so certain will it be that the truth of God will be perpetuated in the world."
If the church alone was commissioned to p reserve and to preach the gospel, then it is certain that no other organization has the right to preach it—to trench upon the divine rights of the church. A Masonic Lodge, no more than a Young Men’s Christian Association; an Odd-Fellows’ lodge or Howard Association, no more than a "Woman’s Missionary Board," have the least right to take the gospel in hand, select and commission ministers to go forth and preach it, administer its ordinances and organize churches. "Young Men’s Christian Associations" are not churches or any part of a church. Nor is a "Woman’s Missionary Society" in any conceivable sense, a church of Christ, and their daring to assume the mission and exercise the prerogatives of the divine church, is no less daring and impious than that of Uzziah when he put forth his hand to seize the ark of God! The church is degraded in the eyes of the world when its divine mission work is assumed by organizations of men’s and women’s origination, and confusion and distraction are introduced into the Christian church.
It is through His church that Christ wishes and ordains that the glory of all we can do, or give, or influence, should flow to Him in all ages, in this and in all time to come, as well as in the past.
The second divine prerogative of a church of Christ is—
2. To elect and commission—i.e., ordain—her own officers.
It is evident that, if a church must exist before her officers, and that she is absolutely independent of all other bodies, she must be authorized to elect and to commission her officers without being required to call upon some outside party. (1) The church at Jerusalem elected an apostle to take the place of Judas, and afterwards seven deacons to administer the temporal affairs of the church. These may have all been of the seventy Jesus originally commissioned to preach, and it is certain that one of them at least, became an evangelist, but not by virtue of his office of deacon. Subsequently, by the direction of the Holy Spirit, the church at Antioch formally commissioned Paul and Barnabas to the full work of the ministry, and to go forth as missionaries to foreign lands. There is no intimation that either one had administered the ordinances before this ordination. No neighboring churches were called upon to send their officers to ordain these men; nor can we bring ourselves to believe that a number of ministers belonging to this church ordained and gave them "credentials," bearing their individual signatures; the record of the church alone was the visible proof of their ordination, and it is given.
A church may, if she sees fit, invite as many ministers as she pleases to advise and assist her officers in this work, but she must allow them no authority in the matter. They may all decide that the candidate is qualified for the work, but if she is not, after due examination, no ordination can take place; and, the presbytery may decide adversely, but if the church is satisfied, it is her right to ordain, and the presbytery can not prevent her act. One church does not make a minister for, nor can she impose one upon, another church. When one church calls a minister to preach to her, she virtually commissions him to preach the gospel for her, or if the reader prefers, she indorses the act of the church ordaining him. If the minister is a member of her body, she can, if she deems him unworthy, withdraw the authority she gave him to preach, and retain him as a member. A man may be qualified to be a good church member, and not qualified to be a preacher of the gospel. Of this the church is the only judge.
3. A church is alone authorized to receive, to discipline, and to exclude her own members.
This power, with all her other prerogatives, is delegated to her, and it is her bounden duty to exercise it; she can not delegate her prerogatives.
"Quod delegatur non delegatum est" is a legal maxim as old as the civil code. What is delegated can not be delegated. She can not authorize her ministers to examine and baptize members into her fellowship without her personal presence and action upon each case. A minister, therefore, has no right, because ordained, to decide who are qualified to receive baptism and to administer it. Their ordination only qualified them to administer the ordinances for a church when that church called upon them to do so. A minister has an equally just right to administer the Lord’s Supper to whom, and when, and where he pleases, as he has to baptize whom he pleases, and one act would be as null as the other.
A distinguished scholar in the South, in order to find a ground upon which to unite the advocates of ministerial authority to baptize whom they will, and the advocates of church authority alone, proposes that the pastor be allowed the veto power—i. e., the right to reject whom he pleases. This would virtually place the keys of the church door, and all the ordinances of the church in the hands of the pastor, and put the whole church at his feet. He would be a petty pope indeed, and no pope ever had more control of the ordinances than he would have. Nor would he be long in making his power felt—his arrogance and self-sufficiency as well.
The question was discussed and decided in the negative by the old Goshen Association in Virginia, in 1795, in the case of one George Morris, a self-opinionated minister, who continued the practice contrary to the advice of the Association, and was excluded therefor. There are some ministers among us now who declare they will baptize whom they please; and they care not for church authority. Churches can not stand too clear of men of this spirit.
It is strangely advocated, by the same writer, that the act of any one church, whether scriptural or not, binds the action of every other church in the world;— e.g., suppose a church in this place should, without just cause, and by a process not recognized in the New Testament, exclude a member—say for contributing his money for foreign missions—that every other church of Christ would be bound to respect that act, and would have no authority to restore that outraged member to his church rights, of which he had been wickedly robbed in open violation of the law of Christ! We refer all to 3 John 9, as determining this case.
When a church has excluded a member, she has no further jurisdiction over him than over a publican, or one who never belonged to her body. She has no right to say what church shall not, any more than what one shall, receive him. Each church on earth has an unquestioned right to receive whom she pleases to her fellowship. If she can fellowship a certain person, it is not her business or duty to inquire if a church possibly exists on earth that can not; and for this reason reject him. I do not discuss here what would be policy or comity in a case where the church was knowing to the fact that the applicant had been excluded for unchristian conduct from a sister church; but I am asserting the abstract right of one church to dictate to another whom she may or may not fellowship. No church on earth is compelled to receive a person because he has a letter of credit from another sister church. That church itself may be without credit—may be in known disorder, and then the church may have no fellowship for the person applying. His character may be unsatisfactory, or he may come with a baptism irregular and null in the estimation of the church, and certainly she has the right to decide upon the qualifications of the members she must fellowship and admit to her ordinances. To grant pastors the "veto power," and that "the acts of one church bind all others," would be to subvert the government of Baptist churches altogether, and introduce ministerial lordship and a species of Church Centralism in the place of Independence.
4. It is the inalienable and sole right and duty of a Christian church to administer the ordinances, Baptism, and the Supper.
That these ordinances were designed to be of perpetual observance, commemorating specific and important events or acts in the work of Christ, no intelligent Christian will deny. The rites and ordinances of an institution belong, unquestionably, to that institution, and may be rightly said to be in it. I mean by these expressions that they are under the sole control of the organization; they can he administered only by the organization as such, and when duly assembled, and by its own officers or those she may appoint, pro tern pore. A number of its members, not even a majority in an unorganized capacity; is competent to administer its rites, and certainly another and different body can not perform them—e. g., the rites of Masonry belong to the respective lodges; ‘they can not be performed outside, or independent of. the lodge by any number of Masons: the officers are mere ciphers so soon as the lodge adjourns, and Odd Fellow lodges certainly can not administer the rite of initiation for a masonic lodge, or vice versa.
Corollary 1.—No Baptist Association or Convention can ordain ministers; dictate the discipline of churches; administer baptism or the Lord’s supper; and if Pedobaptist and Catholic organizations are not scriptural churches, then they not only have no right to preach or power to ordain ministers; but they have no right, any more than have Masonic Lodges, to administer baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and such acts of theirs ore worse than null and void.
Corollary 2.—The official acts of a minister of a church are held valid as to third parties, as the acts of an officer, de facto, though not, de lure, would be, should there be found to hove been material defects as to his legal qualifications for the office. This is a scaled question in all civil matters, and should be in ecclesiastical.
REM—There ore certain qualifications, personal and ceremonial, scripturally required to render a man eligible to ordination, as personal regeneration, "aptness to teach," a valid baptism, etc. Of these the church alone is judge, and responsible for any defect that may exist, and not parties applying to the church for its ordinances. The church may, years after, be satisfied that her pastor is on unregenerate man, or covetous, or his baptism defective—e. g., he was not entirely put under the water when baptized, or by on unqualified administrator, or by on impostor upon his own responsibility without examination by a church, or by an impostor while officiating for a church; still all his official acts, as marriages, baptisms, ordinations, are, de facto, valid.
The baptisms of John, of Judas, and of the false teachers in Paul’s day, who belonged to the church at Jerusalem, were as valid as those of Paul’s by virtue of their commissions.