6 Church Government
Is there any particular form of Church government revealed in the New Testament? And if so, what is it?
These questions will be variously answered by Christian scholars and Bible students. Some hold that no specific form can be deduced from the sacred records, and that no one form is best suited for all people and for all places; and that it was purposely left for Christian wisdom and prudence, guided by experience, to decide that question. But the greater part believe that a specific form is at least outlined in the New Testament; and, naturally enough, each one believes the form with which he is identified is that divinely given form. It may be safely allowed that no one class or company of Christians has attained to all the truth, leaving all others exclusively in error; and it is a comfort to know that, however believers may differ in opinion as to any matter of doctrine or of duty, if with loving hearts they sincerely desire to know the right and do it, they are blessed of God. As Peter said at the house of Cornelius, we may say, “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he that feareth Him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him.”—Acts 10:34,35.
If, however, there be any definite plan plainly taught or clearly deducible from the words of Christ or His inspired Apostles, we should, if possible, ascertain that fact and be guided accordingly. Or if—what would be equivalent—we can ascertain how the Apostles, under the guidance of the Spirit, organized and ordered the churches they founded, with what regulations they were instituted, and what polity was impressed upon them, our questions will be substantially, and, it should seem, satisfactorily answered. Indeed, there appears to be light on the subject in this direction; for though no formal plan of government is detailed, yet there are numerous incidental references in the Epistles which clearly disclose formative and conclusive facts in the case.
I. Three principal forms of Church government are in current use among the denominations:
1. The Prelatical; in which the governing power is in the hands of prelates or bishops, and the clergy generally, as in the Roman, Greek, English, and most of the Oriental communions.
2. The Presbyterian; in which the governing power resides in Assemblies, Synods, Presbyteries, and Sessions; as in the Scottish Kirk, the Lutheran, and the various Presbyterian bodies.
3. The Independent; in which the governing power rests entirely with the people, i.e., the body of the members of each local Church, each being entirely separate from and independent of all others, so far as authority and control are concerned; as among Baptists, Congregationalists, Independents, and some others.
Now, is either of these forms taught in the New Testament-And if so, which? And which best accords with the genius of the gospel, and with what we know of the constitution and government of the apostolic churches?
Baptists claim that a Christian Church is a congregation of baptized believers associated by mutual covenant, self-governing, and independent of all others; having no ecclesiastical connection with any other, though maintaining friendly and associational intercourse with all of like faith and order.
It has no power to enact laws, but only to administer those which Christ has given.
The government is administered by the body acting together, where no one possesses a preeminence, but all enjoy an equality of rights; and in deciding matters of opinion, the majority bears rule. The pastor exercises only such control over the body as his official and personal influence may allow, as their teacher and leader and the expounder of the great Lawgiver’s enactments. His influence is paramount, but not his authority. In the decision of questions he has but his single vote.
His rule is in the moral force of his counsels, his instruction and guidance in matters of truth and duty, and also in wisely directing the assemblies whether for worship or business. Much less have the deacons any authoritative or dictatorial control over Church affairs. Matters of administration are submitted to the body and by them decided.
II. Church Independency.
As has been said, each particular and individual Church is actually and absolutely independent in the exercise of all its churchly rights, privileges, and prerogatives; independent of all other churches, individuals, and bodies of men whatever, and is under law to Christ alone. The will and law of the great Lawgiver are to be found in the New Testament, which is the only authoritative statute book for His people.
This statement is broad and comprehensive, and needs not defence, but explanation only. That Independency is the true form of Church government, as opposed to Prelacy and Presbyterianism, will not now be argued, but is assumed, as accepted by all Baptists, taught in the New Testament, verified by history, and justified by the genius of the gospel itself But all human liberty is under limitations strictly speaking it is not absolute.
How is Church Idependence Limited?
I. The liberty which the independence of churches exercises is limited by the laws of Christ as expressed or clearly implied in the Scriptures. A Church is not a legislative body, but administrative only. It cannot make laws, but it is the interpreter of the laws of Christ; the interpreter for itself, not for others. Nor can others interpret laws for it. The opinions of the wise and good have their weight, but no man or body of men external to itself, has the right to become authoritative interpreters of the word of God to a Church, and compel submission to their dicta—to a Church, or indeed to an individual, even.
Churches may perform many unwise and unjustifiable acts. They may misapply or misinterpret, or openly do violence to both the letter and spirit of law. But there is no human tribunal to which they can be brought for trial and punishment, except that of public opinion. Others, in the exercise of their personal or Church liberty, may condemn their acts and disclaim all responsibility in connection with them; may withdraw all fellowship and intercourse from them. But farther than this they cannot go, except by the moral force of their dissent and condemnation. And it is fortunate that such is the case, since to crush liberty and destroy independency in the churches of Christ would be a greater calamity than to bear all the evils which may spring from a misunderstanding of the one, or a misuse of the other.
2. The independence of the churches is limited, so far as its corporate acts are concerned, or any matters of personal rights or legal equity may be in question, by the laws of the State in which they are located. This, however, has reference only to the temporalities of Church life, and cannot touch any question of doctrine, worship, or Christian duty. Most churches, by an organized “society,” or in some other way, hold relations to civil law, in order to enjoy its protection in rights of property. To this extent they are subject to civil authority, and both as bodies and as individuals they should be law-keepers and not law-breakers. But as to all matters of spiritual concern in questions of religious faith and practice, the State and civil law have no rights of control over, or interference with the churches in any manner whatever, except to protect them in the enjoyment of all their lawful ‘privileges’.
It may also happen that in the exercise of its ecclesiastical functions in acts of discipline or exclusion, a Church or even a Council may be charged with decisions which are defamatory in their nature, calculated to injure the reputation or interfere with the secular interests of the individual, and he may seek redress at the civil courts. Such occurrences have sometimes transpired, and under stress of circumstances, are liable to take place. Civil courts usually observe this rule when appealed to in ecclesiastical matters, viz.: that the established usages of any body of Christians have a right to be followed, and if these have been carefully observed and not transcended, the courts will not interfere. But if from passion, prejudice, or ignorance, these have been disregarded, and the precedents and customs of the denomination have been violated, the court may interfere to give relief, only so far, however, as to require that the case have a new trial, in which their own established rules and precedents shall be strictly observed.
3. By some it has been held, that, while each Church is independent in theory, its liberty is somewhat abridged by its relations to other churches, and because of that fellowship and comity which exists between them. By such it is claimed that the relation of each Church to the great body of churches is similar to the relation of each member of a Church to the body of members which constitute that Church; and, therefore, as each member relinquishes something of his personal liberty on becoming a member, and consents to be subject to the authority of the body, so the individual Church does on becoming one of the general fellowship of churches. Or, they argue, to take another figure; as each particular State, though in a sense sovereign and independent, yet has its independency limited by being a member of the federation of States, and submits in certain matters to be subject to the general government, while represented in it, so is it with a single Church in the federation of churches. This condition of affairs has sometimes been called the interdependence of churches. Precisely what that term means is not easily explained. But it is safe to pronounce it a fiction. There is no such thing as interdependence in the sense of a limitation of the self-governing right and authority of a Church. And that is the sense in which their interdependence is asserted. One Church may be poor and need help from one that is rich; or it may be in perplexity and need advice from one supposed to be more experienced—as the Church at Antioch sought counsel of the older and more experienced Church at Jerusalem, or as the churches in Macedonia and Achaia contributed to the poor saints in Judea. But these facts do not touch the question of polity or government; their relations to each other in these respects remain the same. Fellowship and fraternal concord may be strengthened; the helpfulness of the one and the gratitude of the other may be increased, but the one is none the more independent, nor the other any the less so, because of these friendly interchanges.
But this whole course of argument alluded to is fallacious and misleading, and the illustrations used are unauthorized, inapplicable, and contrary to the facts. There is no such relation subsisting between the various churches constituting a general fellowship as exists between the individual members of a single Church. No hint or intimation of any such similarity is found in the New Testament, where the constitution and polity of a Church is taught. There is no other and larger organization provided for, with officers, orders, and regulations, including many smaller ones, called churches, as its units. If this similarity of relation be insisted on, then we shall have this comprehensive confederacy of churches claiming authority over the individual churches, receiving, disciplining, and excluding them, and otherwise exercising powers similar to those exercised by the individual Church over its members. Admit so much, and we have prelacy or papacy at once, in spirit and in fact.
Nor is there any relation subsisting between the separate churches, which can be fitly compared to the union of States in a federal government. If it were so we should have a de facto Presbyterianism. This whole course of reasoning, if carried out to its logical results, would not leave a vestige of Church independency. The only limitation, the only check upon the exercise of Christian liberty required by the Gospel, is loyalty to Christ as King in Zion, fidelity to His truth, and a constant exercise of that kindly courtesy which is innate in the Gospel and essential to the true Christian life, whether individual or organic, whether personal, social, or official. This spirit dominant will give all the fellowship which churches need or can demand; and all which a Scriptural polity can render or allow.
4. It is sometimes objected that Baptists are too independent, and that their liberty degenerates into license. Now, on calm reflection, all this must be denied. They cannot, as churches, be too independent, using that word in a true Christian sense. Nor can liberty become license.
Ignorant and foolish men may be charged with many wrong acts. They may practise injustice and oppression in the name of liberty, and under pretence of independence. But liberty and independence are, at the very most, only the occasion, and are in no sense to be made responsible for the evils which perverse and wrong-headed persons perpetrate under the shelter of their name. Church independency has its peculiar liability to misuse and abuse, but it cannot be shown that its difficulties are any more numerous, or any more serious than those to which other forms of Church government are liable. Indeed, if this be the true, the divine plan, then it is the best plan, with the fewest evils and the most advantages. The defects lie not in the plan, but in those who administer the government; and, as a matter of fact, it can be shown that churches acting under the independent polity, actually suffer from fewer and less serious difficulties than those subject to stronger and more centralized governments.
5. The independence of a Church is limited by the personal rights of its individual members. That is to say, the liberty of the body to act cannot lawfully be used to infringe the lawful liberty of its members. A Church, as a body, has no right to violate the rights of its members in the exercise of its authority. These rights need to be clearly defined and well understood on both sides. If the morals of the member do not coincide with the morals of the Gospel, the Church has the right to put him away from it, if he cannot be reclaimed. But the body cannot properly interfere with the rights of faith, or conscience, on the part of the individual. If his faith be judged heretical, and an element of discord, they can withdraw fellowship from him; but they can neither compel uniformity nor punish dissent—except by separation.
6. And still further, the liberty of a Church is limited by the terms of the great Commission, and by its divine institution, to the pursuits and the purposes contemplated in the Gospel. Whatever its members may do in their individual capacity as citizens and members of society, the Church as such must confine itself to the mission for which it was founded—the spread of the Gospel, and the advancement of the Kingdom of God in the world. It cannot become a corporation for mercantile or manufacturing pursuits; it cannot become a political organization; it cannot become a scientific or literary association. On all moral questions, however, the Church as a body, as well as its individual members, should be plainly pronounced and clearly understood as standing for the defence of virtue, purity and good order, since these are essential elements of Christianity. Also it should have an unmistakable record as an abettor and helper of good works, charitable and benevolent endeavors, since these are inherent in, and grow out of, the gospel. The Church cannot dictate what a member shall eat or drink or wear; what shall be his business or his pleasure. But if, in any of these matters, questions of morals and religion come to be involved to the reproach of truth and the Christian profession, then the Church has the right to interpose.
III. Evidence of It.
Wherein lies the proof that the primitive Church government was an independency?
In Matthew, chap. 18:15-17, where our Saviour for the first time, and, with one exception, the only time, in His personal conversation, speaks of the Church distinctively, His recognition of it as the only source of ecclesiastical authority is positive and complete. In giving directions for the adjustment of difficulties among brethren and the pacification of their social disturbances. He first expounds their personal duties; but when He speaks of authoritative action, that belongs to the Church. And the Church’s action is final. That action admits of no reversal and of no review. There was to be no court beyond or above the single Church. He recognized no hierarchy, no presbytery, no synod, no assembly, no council; but “tell it to the Church.” That ends the matter of appeal. “If he neglect to hear the Church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican.”
The course pursued by the Church at Antioch, in Syria is suggestive. When a difficulty arose pertaining to the engrafting of Jewish customs upon a Christian polity, respecting which they were in doubt, they sent a delegation to the Church at Jerusalem, as being not only at the seat of the Jewish cultus, but of the earliest Christian knowledge as well, besides having in their fellowship the apostles. From this source, therefore, they would obtain authoritative instruction.—Acts 15. This deputation, including Paul and Barnabas, on their arrival did not appeal to any select company of officials, not even to the inspired Apostles; but to the whole Church, inclusive of these. “And when they came to Jerusalem they were received of the Church, and of the Apostles, and elders.”—v. 4. After a full statement and discussion of the case, and an expressed opinion by James, the pastor of the Church, they agreed on what reply to make to the Church at Antioch, “Then pleased it the apostles, and elders, with the whole Church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch, with Paul and Barnabas.” v. 22. In addition to this delegation they sent letters also conveying their judgment in the case And these letters recognized the Church in its three estates. “The apostles and elders and brethren greeting, unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles—v, 23. And they added “it seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord.” And ” it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us in Antioch.”—vs. 25-28.
One independent Church, wishing advice, sought counsel of another independent Church, in whose experience and wisdom they had more confidence than in their own. And the Church appealed to, in the exercise of their independence, gave the advice sought. Nor did the Apostles, though inspired, assume to dictate in this matter, or to act without the cooperation of the elders and brethren. Nor yet did the Apostles and elders assume to act alone; “all the multitude,” and “the whole Church,” were present to hear and act with their leaders.
The Apostles regarded and treated the churches as independent bodies, having the rights of self-government, without subjection to any other authority. They reported their own doings to the churches, and addressed their epistles to them, as to independent bodies, and not to a confederacy, including many distinct congregations; nor yet to any official representatives of these congregations. In communicating with them the Apostles recognized their right to choose their own officers, to admit, discipline, and exclude members primary and; fundamental rights, which, being conceded, imply all other rights necessary to a self-governing community, acting under divinely enacted laws. They also enjoined upon them, as the responsible and authoritative executives of this power, the exercise of these functions, especially in the discipline and exclusion of unworthy members.
And nothing could more distinctly or more emphatically declare what is here claimed, than the fact that the Lord, in the Apocalyptic Epistles, addressed specifically the individual churches of Asia, through the angels, or pastors of these churches. The counsels, warnings, reproofs and commendations are in each case for the particular Church addressed, as responsible, censurable, or commendable. They were not addressed as a combination, or system of churches, either hierarchical or synodical; not as “the Church of Asia,” but the churches, individual and separate.
Mosheim, the Church historian, says of the first century:
“In those primitive times each Christian Church was composed of the people, the presiding officers, and the assistants or deacons. These must be the component parts of every society. The principal voice was that of the people, or the whole body of Christians.” “The assembled people therefore elected their own rulers and teachers.” Of the second century, he adds: “One president or bishop presided over eachChurch. He was created by the common suffrages of the whole people.” “During a great part of this century all the churches continued to be, as at first, independent of each other. Each Church was a kind of small independent republic, governing itself by its own laws, enacted or at least sanctioned by the people.” Eccl Hist. Cent. I. part I. Ch. n. sees. J,6; Cetit. II. Ch. II. sees, i, 2.
Gieseler, in his Church history, speaking of the changes which occurred in ecclesiastical order during the second century, says:
“Country churches, which had grown up around some city, seem, with their bishops, to have been usually, in a certain degree, under the authority of the mother Church. With this exception, all the churches were alike independent, though some were especially held in honor, on such ground as their Apostolic origin, or the importance of the city in which they were situated.” Ch. Hist. Period I. Div. I. Ch.j sec. 2.
Schaff, in his history, says:
“Thus the Apostolic Church appears as a free, independent, and complete organization; a system of supernatural divine life, in a human body. It contains in itself all the offices and energies required for its purpose. It produces the supply of its outward wants from its own free spirit. Instead of receiving protection and support from the secular power, it suffers deadly hatred and persecution. It manages its own internal affairs with equal independence. Of union with the State, either in the way of hierarchical supremacy or of Erastian subordination, the first three centuries afford no trace.”—Ch. Hist. Vol. I. sec. 43, p. 138. N. V., 1871.
Waddington, on this subject, says:
“It is also true that in the earliest government of the first Christian society, that of Jerusalem, not the elders only, but the whole Church, were associated with the apostles. And it is even certain that the terms bishop and elder or presbyter, were in the first instance, and for a short period, sometimes used synonymously.” Hist, of the Ch., p. 41
ABP. Whately says of the primitive churches:
“Though there was one Lord, one Faith, and one Baptism for all of these, yet they were each a distinct independent community on earth, united by the common principles on which they were founded, by their mutual agreement, affection and respect.” Kingdom of Christ, pp. 101-156. N.Y. Ed.
Dr. Burton says:
“Every Church had its own spiritual head, or bishop, and was independent of every other Church, with respect to its own internal regulations and laws.” Cited by Coleman, Primitive Christianity, p. 50.
Dr. Barrow says:
“At first every Church was settled apart under its bishops and presbyters, so as independently and separately to manage its own affairs. Each was governed by is own head and had its own laws.” Treatise on the Pope’s Suprem. Works Vol. I. p. 662. Col. Prim. Christ.
Dr. Coleman says:
“These churches, wherever formed, became separate and independent bodies, competent to appoint their officers and administer their own government without reference or subordination to any central authority or foreign power. No fact connected with the history of the primitive churches is more fully established or more generally conceded.” Prim. Christ’y Exemp. Ch. 4, sec. 4, p. 95.
Dr. Francis Wayland says:
“The Baptists have ever believed in the entire and absolute independence of the churches. By this we mean that every Church of Christ—that is, every company of believers united together according to the laws of Christ—is wholly ‘…dependent of every other. That every Church is capable of self-government; and that therefore no one acknowledges any higher authority under Christ, than itself; that with the Church all ecclesiastical action commences, and with it all terminates.” “The more steadfastly we hold to the independency of the churches and abjure everything in the form of a denominational corporation, the more truly shall we be united, and the greater will be our prosperity.” Princ’s and Prac’s of Bap. Chs., pp.178, 190.
Dr. David Benedict, the Baptist historian, says:
“The doctrine of absolute Church independence has always been a favorite one with our people. Under it they have greatly flourished, and very few have complained of its operation.” Fifty Years among the Baptists, p. 399.
That the apostolical churches, therefore, were independent in their form of government, seems to be clearly proven. Many prelatists, as well as others besides those here cited, concede this point. In this respect, therefore, and so far as their independency is concerned, Baptists are manifestly founded on the New Testament order of Church building and Church life; and, so far, are true successors of the Apostles. Nor does it avail to urge objections to this independency, or magnify the difficulties to which it is liable. It can be shown that other forms have inherent in them even greater liabilities to misuse; while this, if it were established by divine wisdom, must be the best fitted to its purpose, and is the one to be used and preserved.
Edward Hiscox (1814-1901) was an American Baptist pastor and theologian. He was converted to Christ in 1834 and began to preach the gospel four years later. He served as the pastor for several congregations, including the Stanton Street Baptist Church, New York (1852). He is best known for authoring the “Standard Manual for Baptist Churches” (1890) and the “New Directory for Baptist Churches” (1894).