Page images

and such a union cannot be supposed to imply an abandonment of christian liberty, and the rights of conscience, seeing it is founded on those principles. However unequal in abilities and worldly circumstances, christians unite in societies as equals in religious rights and privileges. Unless every christian has a right to exercise full liberty `in all religious matters, dissenting churches cannot justify their dissent; for a church can have no rights but what belong to every christian. be consistent, they must constitute their churches, and conduct all their proceedings, on the principles of liberty. Whenever they attempt to restrict the liberty of each other, they violate the leading principles of dissent.


§3. Christians are all equal as to religious rights and liberties.

Christ hath placed his followers on a perfect level, as children of the same father, and servants of the same master, and taught them to treat each other as brethren. One member of a christian church cannot have more authority than another, to prescribe what shall be believed or practised in religion, unless he can prove himself something more than a brother and fellow-servant. Either the members of christian societies have a right to judge, speak, and act freely, in all religious matters, or it will be impossible to prove they have a right to use that liberty in any matter of religion. Either this liberty belongs to every christian, whether a member or not a member of a church,

or it cannot be proved to belong to any christian; for christians are all brethren. There is no way to distinction in the church of God, but by superior virtue and usefulness. He that will be greatest among you let him become servant of all.


On the Discipline of a Christian Church.

In every assembly, or society, order must be maintained, and some regular plan pursued, or much good cannot be expected. In a society where the mutual improvement of its members is


end of their union, some kind of discipline will be found necessary. On the subject of church discipline christians have gone to great extremes. In many societies such arbitrary and rigorous discipline has been practised, as has rendered the churches of God houses of bondage. To avoid this extreme, in some congregations all discipline has been laid aside. The medium is to be sought, and it seems to lie in adopting what is consistent with liberty and will be edifying.

1. What is meant by discipline.

Discipline does not imply dominion; for no church has a right to exercise dominion over its members. The object of discipline is edification. Edification cannot be promoted by coercion, and all coercion is incompatible with christian liberty.

Christian discipline has nothing in it of authoritative proceedings, for Christ has not delegated his authority to his followers. As it relates to indi. viduals, it consists in giving them suitable instruction, admonition, and reproof. As it relates to the church, in the preservation of order and regularity, and in the conducting their affairs with that decocorum and propriety which may best promote the ends of christian society. Erroneous opinions are not a proper subject of discipline, only so far as the word is used merely to express instruction. Improper conduct alone calls for admonition, and sin for reproof and censure. To attempt to dictate to others how they shall understand and practise the positive commands of Christ, and make our judgment a rule of action to them, is no legitimate part of church discipline; because it is an assumption of dominion over conscience, which Christ hath prohibited. That is antichristian tyranny, not christian discipline, which consists in imposing on others what is contrary to their judg ment and consciences.

§ 2. No regular plan of church discipline instituted by Jesus and his apostles.

Jesus Christ, in revealing the gospel, directed his disciples to the adoption of no particular form of church government. He taught the great doctrines and duties of christianity, revealed the hope of immortality, left the most perfect example, commissioned his apostles to go on with the important work, and left the world without prescribS

[ocr errors]

ing any particular plan of discipline to be maintained in the church. It is incumbent on those who deny this to prove the contrary from the New Testament, not on me to prove a negative.

The apostles, like their master, left matters of discipline undecided. They only gave general rules to preserve the churches from the defilement of immorality, for the recovery and restoration of transgressors, for the comfort and edification of the brethren, and for the general promotion of the gospel. Any particular advice they gave related to particular cases as they occurred. In vain may we search in their writings for any precise and regular plan of church discipline.

It follows, that christian societies are left to choose those plans of discipline which appear to them most consistent with the doctrines and precepts of Christ, with the spirit which he inculcated and manifested, with christian liberty, and with the great ends for which the gospel was sent into the world, according to the times and circumstances in which they live. But they should not be too tenacious of their own plans. The servants should be careful not to lay too much stress on what the master left undecided; nor attempt to prescribe, with a tone of authority, regulations on which he was silent, which he left to the wisdom and prudence of his followers. Every christian may recommend what he thinks best; but it would be wrong for any one to break the peace of a society, or take the least offence, because what he recommends is not adopted.. Every church

has a right to adopt that plan of discipline which it thinks most consonant with the spirit of christianity, and most calculated for edification; but no church ought to be offended with other churches for not adopting the same plan. Churches will vary in their plans of discipline, and they have a right to do so, as the members of each church have an undoubted right to judge for themselves; nor ought this to produce the least disunion among the churches.


The best system of discipline is that which best accords with the purity and simplicity of the gospel, which is most consistent with christian liberty, and is best suited to the particular circumstances of the church which adopts it. The same plan of discipline does not seem equally suited to all churches, nor to all times and circumstances. diversity may be found necessary and most useful, according to the varied circumstances of different societies; and the whole business rests with the members of each society to determine on for themselves. Only it ought ever to be remembered, that no church has a right to vote its own plans and regulations laws of Christ, to make them terms of communion, or to attempt to impose them on others who may not approve or adopt them; and that the more simple and liberal any plan is, the more agreeable it is to the spirit of christianity.

It is highly probable that many regulations in the first christian churches were adopted from the synagogue; be this as it may, it is evident they

« PreviousContinue »