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Of the Irregularities and Offences which appeared in the Apostolic Churches.
THERE are few things in which the various divisions of professing Christians are so generally agreed as in speaking highly and honourably of primitive Christianity. In many persons this is no more than an ignorant admiration, not capable of distinguishing what is truly praiseworthy, but disposed to applaud every thing in the gross that has the sanction of antiquity to recoinmend it. The primitive Christians have been looked upon, by some, as if they were not men of the same nature and infirmities with ourselves, but nearly infallible and perfect. This is often taken for granted in gencral, and when particulars are insisted on, it is observable that they are seldom taken from the records of the New Testament, and the churches which flourished in
"beside himself;" that is to say, his attention to the office he has undertaken has transported him beyond the bounds of reason, and made him forget his station, his friends, and his safety; therefore, out of pure affection and prudence, they would have confined him: nor is it any wonder that our Lord's friends and relatives sh ould thus think and speak of him, since we are assured that even his brethren did not believe on him: John, vii. 5. And there seems to have been no possible medium. All who were conversant with him must either receive him as the Messiah, or pity, if not des pise him, as a madman. This was the mildest judgement they could form. The Pharisees, indeed, went farther, and pronounced hin an impostor and a devil. Such was the treatment our Lord and Master found. Let not then his disciples and servants be surprised o r grieved hat they are misrepresented and misunderstood, on account: of their
hment to him, but let them comfort themselves with his grawords. John, xv. 18-21.
the aposles' times, but rather from those who lived in and after the second century, when a considerable deviation in doctrine, spirit, and conduct, from those which were indeed the primitive churches, had already taken place, and there were evident appearances of that curiosity, ambition, and will-worship, which increased, by a swift progress, till, at length, professed Christianity degenerated into little more than an empty
If Christians of the early ages are supposed to have been more exemplary than in after-periods, chiefly because they lived nearer to the times of our Lord and his apostles, it will follow of course, that the earlier the ' better. We may then expect to find most of the Christian spirit among those who were converted and edified by the apostles' personal ministry; and though we cannot allow the assumption (for the power of godliness depends not upon dates, periods, or instruments, but upon the influences of the Holy Spirit), yet we are content to join issue upon the conclusion, and are willing that all claims to a revival of religion, and a real reformation of manners, shall be admitted or rejected, as they accord or disagree with the accounts we have of the churches planted by the apostles, and during the time that these authorized ministers of Christ presided over them. We can find no other period in which we can, to so much advantage, propose the visible churches of Christ as a pattern and specimen of what his grace and Gospel may be expected to produce in the present state of human nature; for the apostles were furnished, in an extraordinary manner, with zeal, wisdom, and authority for their work, and God was remarkably present with them by the power of his Spirit. Besides, as all the information we have concerning this period is
derived from the inspired writings, we have that cer tainty of facts to ground our observations upon, which no other history can afford.
We have a pleasing description of the first of these churches, which was formed at Jerusalem soon after our Lord's ascension. On the day of Pentecost, many,
who had personally consented to the death of Jesus, received power to believe in his name, and publicly joined themselves to his disciples. A sense of his love and grace to each, united the whole body so closely together, that, though they were a multitude of several thousands, it is said, they were of one heart and of one soul; neither said any of them, that ought of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had "all things common," "and they continued steadfastly "in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking "of bread, and in prayers.". These were happy times indeed! No interfering interests or jarring sentiments, no subtle or factious spirits, no remissness in the means of grace, no instances of a conduct in any respect unbecoming the Gospel, were to be found among them; it seemed as if the powerful sense of divine truths which they had received had overborne, if not extirpated, every evil disposition in so large an assembly. Yet even this (the difference of numbers excepted) is no peculiar case. The like has been observable again and again, when God has been pleased to honour ministers, far inferior to the apostles, with a sudden and signal influence, in places where the power of the Gospel had been little known before. In such circumstances the truth has been often impressed and received with astonishing effects. Many who before were dead in tres
9 Acts, iv. 32.
passes and sins, having been, like those of old, pierced to the heart, and then filled with comfort, from a believing knowledge of him on whom their sins were laid, find themselves, as it were, in a new world; old things are past away; the objects of time and sense appear hardly worth their notice; the love of Christ constrains them, and they burn in love to all who join with them in praising their Saviour. Here, indeed, is a striking change wrought; yet the infirmities inseparable from human nature, though for the present overpowered, will, as occasions arise, discover themselves again, so far as to prove two things universally. 1. That the best of men are still liable to mistakes and weaknesses, for which they will have cause to mourn to the end of their lives. 2. That in the best times there will be some intruders, who, for a season, may make a profession, and yet, in the end, appear to have neither part nor lot in the matter. Thus it was in the church of Jerusalem. The pleasing state of things mentioned above did not continue very long: an Ananias and a Sapphira were soon found amongst them, who sought the praise of men, and made their profession a cloak for covetousness and hypocrisy: grudgings and murmurings arose in a little time between the Jews and the Hellenists': and it was not long before they were thrown into strong debates, and in danger of divisions, upon account of the question first started at Antioch, whether the law of Moses was still in force to believers or not'.
In these later times, when it has been attempted to vindicate and illustrate a revival of religion, by appealing to the writings of St. Paul, and the delineation he has given us of the faith and practice of a Christian, the
• Acts, v.
* Acts, xv.
attempt has often excited disdain. It has been thought a sufficient answer to enumerate and exaggerate the faults, mistakes, and inconsistencies (or what the world is pleased to account such), that are charged upon the persons concerned in such an appeal, as necessarily proving that, where these blemishes are found, there can be no resemblance to the first Christians. If the frequency did not lessen the wonder, it might seem very unaccountable that any person who has read the New Testament, should venture upon this method in a Protestant country, where the people have the Scripture in their hands, and are at liberty to judge for themselves. But as there are not a few, even among Protestants, who seem to expect their assertions will pass for proofs, I propose, in this chapter, to point out several things, which, though undoubtedly wrong, had a considerable prevalence among the first Christians, leaving the application to the judicious reader. I acknowledge my firm persuasion that a certain system of doctrine, revived of late years, is the doctrine of the reformation, and of the New Testament, which, though not suited to the general and prevailing taste, is attended, more or less, with the blessing and power of God, in turning sinners from darkness to light. I confess, that both ministers and people who espouse this despised cause have sufficient ground for humiliation. We have seen, we still see, many things amongst us which we cannot approve; we fear that too many are a real discredit to the cause they profess; and we are conscious that the best of us fall mournfully short of what might be expected from the sublime principles which, by the grace of God, we have been taught from his word. We desire to be open to conviction, not to contend for errors, or even to vindicate any thing that