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began without any regular plan of discipline. At first the apostles managed every thing, at length prudence suggested the appointment of deacons, or stewards to manage the temporal affairs of the church. The appointment of elders was after the
plan of the synagogue. Each society had the
choice of its own officers, and the management of its own affairs and the churches kept up a friendly connection and intercourse with each other, for mutual edification, and the promotion of the gospel. Every thing appears before us in the New Testament with great simplicity. Wherever a few persons believed the gospel, they assembled together and were called a church. Some person, or persons, were chosen to preside in their assemblies, for the preservation of order; such were called elders. Those who were qualified were appointed to be teachers and pastors, to watch over their brethren, and feed them with the word of life. Such regulations were adopted as were thought most edifying. The apostles gave them such advice as their particular circumstances required. Such were the primitive churches.
3. On the officers in a christian church.
In every society some must be appointed to take the lead, and act for the good of the whole. Every christian church has felt the necessity of having officers; the only question here is what kind of officers is most consistent with the liberty and simplicity of the gospel. A hierarchy, governed by prelates and dignitaries, is incompatible with
primitive christianity, as such officers are invested with dignity and authority that Christ hath prohibited in his church. The strict presbyterian form of church government, as it invests a few men with authority over their brethren, seems irreconcileable with christian liberty. The bishops of the primitive church were simply overseers of the flock of God, the presbyters simply elders: and they assumed no dominion over others. The officers in a christian church are no more than brethren, appointed by their brethren to officiate among them, for the promotion of the cause of truth and righteousness. Every church has a right to choose its own officers, and to determine what officers it will have. It will be for the advantage of every church, where it is practicable, to have a minister who can devote himself entirely to the work of the ministry, and such studies and labours as are connected with it. Where this is not practicable, there can be no impropriety in their calling men who are engaged in business, to the pastoral office. It is the duty of churches, if it be in their power, so to provide for their ministers as to keep them free from the entanglements of worldly business: 1 Cor. ix. 14. 2 Tim. ii. 4. The appointment of deacons, or stewards, to manage the temporal affairs of the church, will generally be found not only useful but necessary. On these points, however, each society has a right to judge and determine for itself.
4. On terms of communion.
Terms of communion intend those conditions on which persons are admitted to the Lord's supper, and the other privileges of the church. No terms of communion ought to be insisted on, in the present day, but such as were insisted on by the apostles. To insist on unscriptural terms of communion is an antichristian practice. Terms of communion relate either to faith, or religious experience, or practice.
The New Testament authorizes the insisting but on one article of faith, in order to christian communion, i. e. the belief that Jesus is the Christ. It is antichristian to require subscription to any creed, or articles of faith, of mere human composition, or a verbal assent to any doctrines, or opinions, as a term of communion. The mind should be left unfettered, the conscience free, and the judgment unbiased.
When persons first believe, they cannot be expected to have much christian experience, as experience is knowledge gained from practice. The apostles, and first christians, never made the relation of an experience a term of communion; it follows that to do so is unscriptural and antichris. tian.
As persons in the apostolic age were, and of course still ought to be, received into the church on their first professing the faith of Christ, much christian practice cannot be expected prior to their admission to communion: it ought to be deemed
sufficient that they show a disposition to unite with the church, and obey the precepts of the gospel. On one point it may be proper to be more particular: it is baptism. In the days of the apostles there could be but one opinion on this subject; because there was but one mode of practice; but now it is far otherwise. Some believe that none ought to be baptized but believers, and they by immersion of this number is the writer of these
pages. Some believe that infants ought to be baptized, and that sprinkling is baptism. Others think that baptism was designed to continue no longer than the apostolic ages, except in the case of Jews or heathens being proselyted to christianity. It is not intended to discuss these opinions here; but it is contended that we have no more right to judge for others, and make our judgment a rule of action for them, on the subject of baptism, than on any other point of faith, or religious practice. We can have no right to exclude persons from communion with us for not making our views of baptism their rule of conduct, unless we can prove that we have a claim to dominion over their faith and conscience, at least so far as relates to baptism. It ought to be remembered that the table at our Lord's supper is the Lord's, not ours; consequently that we ought not to reject any whom he hath received, i. e. who believe on his name, and show a disposition to obey him according to their views of his gospel.
6. General conclusions.
On the whole we come to the following conclusions :
1. Christians who differ in their opinions may unite in the same church, without violating any precept of Christ, or infringing each other's liberty.
2. No person who professeth faith in Christ, unless he evidently hold the truth in unrighteousness, ought to be denied access to the Lord's table, or any other privilege of a christian church.
3. Every church has a right to adopt that plan of discipline which its members agree on, as in their judgment most agreeable to the gospel, and most calculated for edification; but no church has a right to insist on its own regulations as binding on others, nor disunite themselves from them if they prefer different regulations.
4. Churches which differ materially in their plans of discipline may unite in the bond of christian love, for mutual edification and the general promotion of the gospel.
5. Unchristian and evidently immoral conduct is the only object of censure.
6. Things indifferent are never to be so far insisted on as to break the peace of the church.
7. Christian liberty is ever to be carefully preserved and cherished.