« PreviousContinue »
But here other questions, of no trivial moment, obtrude themselves on our notice.. It will be asked-Must, not such an independent act, in a collateral branch, affect the general unity of the visible church? And if so, what is to be done when a national church that constitutes a subordinate part of another local church, becomes sensible that, in common with its superior, it has fallen into error and depravity? Is it still to continue in the same depressed situation, in order to maintain its union? is it to dissolve this union by a voluntary separation from the elder branch? or, is it merely to regulate its own internal constitution, without a practical reference to the conduct of the other?
In reply to such questions, it must be observed, that there is no precept in the Gospel which enjoins union with error or corruption of any kind; and that our Lord constituted the stewards of his household, or local superintendants of his church, as brethren, upon an equality amongst themselves, and not as possessing the relative situations of masters and dependants. Notwithstanding, therefore, every true
church is a member of the universal church of Christ and in this sense all local churches, which have preserved the apostolical constitution, are members one of another-yet the Gospel does not enjoin the maintenance of union in any thing extraneous, much less repugnant, to that constitution.
The claim of superiority by the church of one sovereign state over that of another, is an usurpation not warranted by the Gospel. For it cannot be proved that one national church is made by the appointment of Christ, or by the laws of his apostles, a part and parcel of another national church as such; or so far subjected to it as a dependent member, that it cannot rectify error, reform abuse, and disallow corrupt usurpation, without mutual consent.
The seven churches in Asia Minor were members of the one body of Christ's visible church, and therefore in communion with each other, whilst they severally constituted parts of that body. But there was not such a mutual connection amongst them, or such a relation of superior and subordinate, but that either of them might reform internal abuse without necessarily producing
the reform of all the rest: or either of them might have apostatized, and have been utterly cut off, without affecting the inte grity of the sister churches. Accordingly the Spirit addresses seasonable admonitions and threats to the ministers of each of these churches severally; which proves that each of them was competent to rectify what was amiss in its internal economy, without prejudice to the unity of the mystical body of Christ. *
And the same thing is taught by our Lord in the Gospel, where he represents himself in union with his visible church, under the figure of a vine and its several branches. We are here told that the fruitful branch is pruned and improved by his heavenly Father, whilst the unfruitful branch is taken away. And this operation does not deprive the remaining branches of their communion with each other, and with the vine of the universal church.
It is therefore clear, from the tenor of the New Testament, that if one local or na tional church has been propagated from another; if, during their mutual communion, they have equally degenerated; and if, in
this degenerate state, the mother-church has claimed, and has been allowed, a superiority over the other; yet all this cannot deprive the younger church of the right of reforming abuses, of remembering whence it has fallen, repénting, and doing the first works: for the great law which binds every Christian church is, the constitution established by Christ and his apostles; and this law cannot be annulled by human usurpation.
Thus, for example, all the churches of the world sprung from the church of Jerusalem, which was a pure apostolical church when it first began to put forth its branches. The members of all the churches which sprung from this root, maintained their communion with the parent church, and with each others; but theirs was the fellowship of brethren, not the relation of a lord and his vassals. Had these local churches equally fallen into error during this communion, it is clear that either of them had a power to return to the supreme rule of the Gospel without obtaining the consent of the others, which we will suppose to have continued in error... Either of them had a right to separate itself from the errors and corruptions of
its fellow churches; still it would be bound to maintain its union with them as members of the universal church of Christ, as far as they continued to acknowledge and obey the truth, but no farther; for the Gospel does not enjoin a fellowship with error or corruption.
Or had the bishop of Jerusalem, forgetting the apostolical constitution, assumed a controuling power over the other bishops and their churches; and had this claim been inadvertently acknowledged for a long time; yet when it should have been discovered, upon reference to the apostolical constitution, that it was a mere usurpation, it might be safely disallowed: for the rule of the Gospel still remained in force. And this disallowance of an adventitious abuse, would not imply a separation from what was still pure and apostolical in the mother-church, or in any of its branches.
But beyond the rejection of error, and the reformation of abuse, no national branch of the church of Christ has a lawful power to innovate upon the sacred structure. It is not for them to remove the golden candle