On Ecclesiastical Independency
Note: All emphasis added by biblecentre.org
The point I take to be fatally dangerous is confounding private judgment and conscience. We see the full-blown fruit of it in the present state of Protestantism, where private judgment is used to authorize the rejection of everything the individual does not agree with.
The difference is plain in the case put. A father's authority is admitted. Now if it be a matter of conscience, Christ's authority or the confession of His name, of course this cannot stand in the way. I am bound to love Christ more than father or mother. But suppose I reject my father's authority for everything my private judgment differs in as to what is right, there is an end of all authority. There may be cases of anxious enquiry as to what my duty is, where spiritual judgment alone can come to a right judgment. This is the case in the whole Christian life. We must have our senses exercised to discern good and evil - not be unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is, and such exercises are useful.
But the confounding a judgment I form simply as to right with conscience is, in result, confounding will with obedience. True conscience is always obedience to God; but if I take what I see as sufficient, confusion of a deadly character soon comes in. Does one not submit to a father's authority unless he can bring, even in an important matter, a text of scripture for everything he desires? Is there no setting up of self and selfwill in such a principle?
But I go farther; and it is the case in question. Suppose in an assembly a person has been put out for evil. All admit that such, if truly humbled, should be restored. The assembly think he is humbled truly: I am satisfied, suppose, that he is not. They receive him. Am I to break with the assembly or to refuse subjection to their act, because I think them mistaken? Supposing (which is a more trying case to the heart) I believe he is humbled and they are satisfied he is not, I may bow to a judgment I think erroneous and look to the Lord to set it right. There is such a thing as lowliness as to self, which does not set up its own opinion against others, though one may have no doubt of being right.
There is another question connected with it - one assembly's act binding another. I do not admit, because scripture does not admit, independent assemblies. There is the body of Christ, and all Christians are members of it; and the Church of God in one place represents the whole and acts in its name. Hence, in 1 Corinthians, where the subject is treated of, all Christians are taken in with the assembly of Corinth as such; yet this last is treated as the body as such, and made locally responsible for maintaining the purity of the assembly; and the Lord Christ is looked at as there; and what was done was done in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is wholly ignored when one speaks of six or seven clever, intelligent Christians and a number of ignorant ones. The Lord in the midst of an assembly is set aside. The flesh, it is said, often acts in an assembly. Why assume it does and forget it may in an individual?
Again, why speak of obeying the Lord first, then the Church? But supposing the Lord is in the Church? It is merely setting up private judgment against the judgment of an assembly meeting in Christ's name with His promise (if they are not, I have nothing to say to them); it is simply saying, I count myself wiser than those who are. I reject entirely as unscriptural the saying, "First Christ, then the Church." If Christ be not in the Church, I do not own it at all. It assumes that the Church has not Christ, making them two parties. I may reason with an assembly, because I am a member of Christ and hence of it - if it is one, help it. But if I own it as an assembly of God, I cannot assume Christ is not there. It is simply denying it is an assembly of God. The thought is wanting of what an assembly of God is. This is not surprising; but it necessarily falsifies judgment on the point, which is not "if the word" - but if I see not the word for it. It is justly trusting one's own judgment as against others and the assembly of God.
I could not for a moment put a question of blasphemies against Christ on such a ground. It is really wickedness. The attempt to cover them by church questions, or by pleas of individual conscience, I abhor with a perfect abhorrence.
Allow me to put the question on minor questions in another shape. Suppose I am of an assembly, and I think they judge something in a mistaken way. Am I to impose my individual way of thinking on them? If not, what am I to do? Leave the assembly of God if it be such (if not, I do not go there)? You cannot help yourself. If I do not continue in an assembly, because it does not agree with me in everything, I can be of no assembly of God in the world. All this is simply a denial of the presence and help of God's Spirit and of the faithfulness of Christ to His own people. I cannot see godly lowliness in it.
But if an assembly have judged as such in a case of discipline, admitting all brotherly communications and remonstrances, I distinctly say another assembly should, on the face of it, receive their act. If the wicked man is put out at Corinth, is Ephesus to receive him? Where then is unity? where the Lord in the midst of the Church? What led me out of the Establishment was the unity of the body: where it is not owned and acted on, I should not go. And independent churches I think quite as bad or worse of than of the Establishment. But if each assembly acts independently of another and receives independently of it, then it has rejected that unity - they are independent churches. There is no practical unity of the body.
But I shall never be brought to such wickedness as to treat acceptance of blasphemers as an ecclesiastical question. If people like to walk with them or help and support the bearing with them at the Lord's table, they will not have me. I distinctly judge that the principles defended shew want of lowliness as to self and a setting aside the very idea of the Church of God. But I am not going to mix the two questions. I do not accept the setting aside my spiritual liberty: we are a flock, not an enclosure. But in questions of discipline, where no principle is denied, I do not set up my judgment against that of the assembly of God in that which God has committed to its care. It is just setting myself up as wiser, and neglecting God's word which has assigned certain duties to an assembly, which He will honour in its place.
Let me add, there is such a thing as obedience in what we do know, which goes before speculating on possible claims in obedience, where we should like to be free to go our own way. "To him that hath shall more be given." Doing what we know in obedience is a great way of knowing further.
Again, "the bond of unity between the churches is said to be the lordship of Christ." But there is not a word about churches [when we speak of unity], nor bond of churches; nor does unity consist of union of churches. Lordship is distinctly individual. Nor is Lord of the body a scriptural idea. Christ is Lord to individuals, Head to the body, over all things. Unity is not by lordship. Of course, individual obedience will help to maintain it, as all godliness will; but unity is unity of the Spirit, and in the body, not in bodies. Both Ephesians and Corinthians teach us distinctly that unity is in and by the Spirit, and that Christ has in this respect the place of Head, not of Lord, which referred to individual Christians. This error if acted on would falsify the whole position of gatherings, and make mere dissenters of them, and in no way meet the mind of Christ.
Confounding authority with infallibility is a poor and transparent piece of sophistry. In a hundred instances obedience may be obligatory where there is no infallibility. Were it not so, there could be no order in the world at all. There is no infallibility in it, but a great deal of selfwill; and if there is to be no obedience where there is not infallibility, no acquiescence in what has been decided, there is no end to selfwill and no existence of common order. The question is of competence, not of infallibility. A father is not infallible, but he has a divinely given authority; and acquiescence is a duty. A police magistrate is not infallible, but he has competent authority in the cases submitted to his jurisdiction. There may be resources against abuse of authority, or in certain cases a refusal of it when a higher authority obliges us, as a conscience directed by God's word. We ought to obey God rather than man. But there is never in scripture liberty given to the human will as such. We are sanctified to the obedience of Christ. And this principle - our doing God's will in simple obedience, without solving every abstract question which may be raised - is a path of peace, which many heads who think themselves wiser miss, because it is the path of God's wisdom.
The question then is a mere sophistry, which betrays the desire to have the will free, and a confidence that the person's judgment is superior to all that has been already judged. There is judicial authority in the Church of God, and if there were not, it would be the most horrible iniquity on earth; because it would put the sanction of Christ's name on every iniquity. And that is what was sought and pleaded for by those with whom these questions originated: that whatever iniquity or leaven was allowed, it could not leaven an assembly. Such views have done good. They have the cordial abhorrence and rejection of every honest mind, and of every one who does not seek to justify evil. It is possible you may think or say That is not the question I am asking. Forgive me for saying, I know that it is, and that only; though you do not, I am well assured.
But the judicial authority of the Church of God is in obedience to the word. "Do ye not judge them that are within? Them that are without God judgeth. Wherefore put out from among yourselves that wicked person." And, I repeat, if it be not done, the Church of God becomes the accrediting of every vileness of sin. And I affirm distinctly, that where this is done, other Christians are bound to respect it. There are remedies for fleshly action in it, in the presence of the Spirit of God amongst the saints, and in the supreme authority of the Lord Jesus Christ; but that remedy is not the totally unscriptural and miserable one proposed by the question - the pretension of competency in every one who takes it into his head to judge for himself independently of what God has instituted. It is, taken in its most favourable aspect, not an individual pretension, which is its real character, the wellknown and unscriptural system which has been known since Cromwell's time - that is, Independency: one body of Christians being independent of every other as a voluntary association. This is a simple denial of the unity of the body, and the presence and action of the Holy Ghost in it.
Supposing we were a body of Freemasons, and a person were excluded from one lodge by the rules of the order, and instead of looking to the lodge to review the case, if it was thought to be unjust, each other lodge were to receive him or not on their own independent authority, it is clear the unity of the Freemason system is gone. Each lodge is an independent body acting for itself. It is in vain to allege a wrong done, and the lodge not being infallible; the competent authority of lodges, and the unity of the whole, is at an end. The system is dissolved. There may be provision for such difficulties. All right if it be needed. But the proposed remedy is the mere pretension of the superiority of the recusant lodge, and a dissolution of Freemasonry.
Now I openly reject, in the most absolute way, the pretended competency of one church or assembly to judge another, as the question proposes; but what is more important, it is an unscriptural denial of the whole structure of the Church of God. It is Independency, a system I knew forty years ago and would never join. If people like that system, let them go there. It is in vain to say it is not that. Independency merely means that each church judges for itself independently of another, and that is all that is claimed here. I have no quarrel with those who, liking to judge for themselves, prefer this system; only I am perfectly satisfied that in every respect it is wholly unscriptural. The Church is not a voluntary system. It is not formed (or rather unformed) of a number of independent bodies, each acting for itself. It was never dreamed, whatever the remedy, that Antioch could let in Gentiles, and Jerusalem not, and all go on according to the order of the Church of God. There is not a trace of such independency and disorder in the word. There is every possible evidence of, in fact, and doctrinal insistence on, there being one body on earth, whose unity was the foundation of blessing in fact, and its maintenance the duty of every Christian. Self-will may wish it otherwise, but certainly not grace, and not obedience to the word.
Difficulties may arise: we have not an apostolic centre as there was at Jerusalem. Quite true: but we have a resource in the action of the Spirit in the unity of the body, the action of healing grace and helpful gift, and the faithfulness of a gracious Lord who has promised never to leave us or forsake us. But the case of Jerusalem in Acts 15 is a proof that the scriptural church never thought of, and did not accept the independent action insisted upon. The action of the Holy Ghost was in the unity of the body, and is always so. The action directed by the apostle at Corinth (and which binds us as the word of God) was operative in respect of the whole Church of God, and all are contemplated in the opening of the epistle. Does any one mean to pretend, if he were to be put out at Corinth judicially, that each church was to judge for itself whether he was to be received; that judicial act pass for nothing or operative only at Corinth, and Ephesus or Cenchrea to do as it liked afterwards? Where then was the solemn act and direction of the apostle? Well, that authority and that direction is the word of God for us now.
I am quite aware it will be said, Yes, but you may not follow it rightly, as the flesh may act. It is possible. There is possibility that the flesh may act. But I am quite certain that what denies the unity of the Church, sets up for itself, and dissolves it into independent bodies, is the dissolution of the Church of God, unscriptural, and nothing but flesh. It is therefore judged for me before I go any farther. There is a remedy, a blessed gracious remedy of humble minds in the help of God's Spirit in the unity of the body, and the Lord's faithful love and care, as I have said, but not in the pretentious will which sets up for itself and denies the Church of God. My answer is, then, that the plea is a sophistry which confounds infallibility and divinely-ordained authority met by lowly grace, and that the system sought is the pretentious spirit of Independency, a rejection of the whole authority of scripture in its teaching on the subject of the Church, a setting up of man instead of God.
It is clear, that if two or three are gathered together, it is an assembly, and if scripturally assembled, an assembly of God; and if not, what else? If the only one in a place, it is the assembly of God in the place. Yet I do object practically to taking the title, because the assembly of God in any place properly embraces all the saints in the place. And there is practical danger for souls in assuming the name, as losing sight of the ruin and setting up to be something. But it is not false in the supposed case. If there be one such and another is set up by man's will, independent of it, the first only is morally, in God's sight, the assembly of God; and the other is not at all so, because it is set up in independency of the unity of the body. I reject in the most entire and unhesitating manner the whole Independent system as unscriptural and a positive, unmitigated evil. Now that the unity of the body has been brought out, and the scriptural truth of it known, it is simply a work of Satan. Ignorance of the truth is one thing, our common lot in many ways; opposition to it is another. I know it is alleged that the Church is now so in ruins that scriptural order according to the unity of the body cannot be maintained. Then let the objectors avow as honest men, that they seek unscriptural order, or rather disorder. But in truth it is impossible to meet at all in that case to break bread, except in defiance of God's word: for scripture says, "we are all one body; for we are all partakers of that one loaf." We profess to be one body whenever we break bread; scripture knows nothing else. And they will find scripture too strong and perfect a bond for man's reasoning to break it.