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ions, therefore, instead of being the judgment of ignorant and erring men, were the dictates of unerring wisdom. And the people, in exchange for the government which they had been accustomed to prescribe for themselves, were kindly provided with an administration which claimed to be directed by wisdom from above.59 Taught thus and disciplined in that great lesson of bigotry and spiritual despotism, passive submission to persons ordained of God for the good of the church,-they were prepared to resign their original rights and privileges into the hands of the hierarchy.
There is the fullest evidence that the action of the laity was requisite, as late as the middle of the third century, in all disciplinary proceedings of the church. By the beginning of the fourth, however, this cardinal right, through the operation of causes, which have been briefly mentioned and which may be more fully specified hereafter, was greatly abridged, and shortly became wholly lost. This fact strongly illustrates the progress of the Episcopal hierarchy. While the right of the laity is yet undisputed, the power of the bishop begins at first to be partially asserted, and occasionally admitted; the people occupying a neutral position between submission and open hostility. But, from disuse to denial, and from denial to the extinction of neglected privileges and powers, the descent is natural, short and rapid. From about the middle of the fourth century, accordingly, the bishops assumed the control of the whole penal jurisdiction of the laity, opening and shutting at pleasure the doors of the church, inflicting sentence of excommunication, and prescribing, at their discretion, the austerities of penance; and again absolving the penitents, and restoring them to the church by their own arbitrary power.60 The people, accordingly, no longer
59 Planck, Gesellschafts-Verfass., 1, pp. 448-452.
having any part in the trial of offences, ceased to watch for the purity of the church, connived at offences, and concealed the offender; not caring to interfere with the prerogatives of the bishop, in which they had no further interest. The speedy and sad corruption of the church was but the natural consequence of this loose and arbitrary discipline. Nor can it be doubted, that this was one efficient cause of that degeneracy which succeeded.
The ecclesiastical discipline, if such indeed it can be called, now appears in total contrast with that of the church under the apostles. Then, the supreme authority was vested in the people; now, it is with the clergy. The church then enacted her own laws, and administered her discipline; the pastor, as the executive officer, acting in accordance with her will for the promotion of her purity and of her prosperity. The clergy are now the supreme arbiters of the church, from whom all laws emanate; and the executioners of their own arbitrary enactments. The church is no longer a free and independent republic, extending to its constituents the rights and privileges of religious liberty; but a spiritual monarchy under the power of an ambitious hierarchy whose will is law, which the people are taught to receive, as if meting out to them, with wisdom from on high, the mercy and the justice, the goodness and severity of their righteous Lawgiver and Judge. They are wholly disfranchised by the priesthood, who have assumed the prerogatives of the prophetic Antichrist, who "as God sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God."
1. It is the right and the duty of the members of every church, themselves to administer the discipline of their own body.
Each church is a voluntary association, formed for the mutual enjoyment of the privileges and ordinances of religion. To them belongs the right to prescribe the conditions of a connection with their communion, or of exclusion from it, as may seem good to them, in conformity with the principles of the gospel. The right vests in them collectively. As an independent association, they are competent, if they please, to surrender the administration of this right to another to a consistory, to a presbytery, or to a presbyter or bishop. But no man, or body of men, can lawfully usurp authority over them, or embarrass the free exercise of this religious right. Any interference with these privileges is an unjust infringement of their religious liberty.
The duty of carefully exercising a Christian watch and fellowship, one toward another, and of excluding those who walk unworthily, is most clearly enforced in the Scriptures; and however it may be disregarded in particular instances, it is generally acknowledged to be one important means of preserving the purity of the church, and of promoting the honor of religion.
2. Ecclesiastical censure is not a penal infliction, but a moral discipline for the reformation of the offender and the honor of religion.
This thought has been already presented, but it should be borne distinctly in mind. Church discipline seeks, in the kindness of Christian love, to recover a fallen brother, to aid him in his spiritual conflicts, and to save him from hopeless ruin. In its simplicity and moral efficacy, if not
in principle, the discipline of the apostolical and primitive churches differed totally from that complicated system of penance into which it degenerated under the hierarchy. The austerities of this system, with its pains and privations, have more the appearance of penal inflictions to deter others from sin, than of Christian efforts to reclaim the guilty. The penance of the ancient church was often, in the hands of the priesthood, an engine of torture with which to molest an adversary, or to gratify private resentment. But the Christian love that administers ecclesiastical censure, in the spirit of the apostolical rule, superior to all sinister motives, seeks only the reformation of the offender, and the honor of that sacred cause which he has dishonored.61
3. This mode of discipline is the best safeguard against the introduction of bad men into the church.
The members of the church who are associated with the candidate in the relations and pursuits of private life, best know his character. They form the most unbiased judgment of his qualifications; and have less to overrule their decisions than any other men. Commit, therefore, the high trust of receiving men into the sacred relations of the church of Christ, neither to bishop nor presbyter, or pastor, but to the united, unbiased decision of the members of that communion.
4. Discipline administered by the brethren of the church is the best means of securing the kind and candid trial of those who may be the subjects of ecclesiastical censure.
Cases of this kind are often involved in great difficulty, and always require to be treated with peculiar delicacy and impartiality. These ends of impartial justice the wisdom of the world seeks to secure by the verdict of a jury. The brethren of the church, in like manner, are the safest tribunal for the impeachment of those who walk unworthily.
61 Venema, Institutiones Hist. Eccles., III, § 188, p. 214, seq.
Commit to any other hands this high trust, and it is in danger either of being totally neglected, or else perverted by some private bias, or partizan spirit.
5. The mode of discipline now under consideration relieves the pastor from unwelcome responsibilities, both in the admission members and in the treatment of offences.
He has a delicate and responsible duty to perform towards those who present themselves for admission to the church. He is not satisfied, it may be, with regard to the qualifications of the candidate, and yet this is only an impression received from a great variety of considerations which cannot well be expressed. But to refuse the applicant, without assigning good and sufficient reasons, may expose him to the charge of uncharitableness, and involve him in great difficulty. Under this circumstance, no railing accusation can be brought against him, provided the case is submitted to the impartial decision of the church.
And again, in the treatment of offences, the pastor should always be able to take shelter under the authority of the church. Like Paul, in the case of the Corinthians, he may be obliged to rebuke them for their neglect, and to urge them to their duty. But he should never appear as the accuser and prosecutor of any of his people. The trial should begin and end with the church, who ought always to be ready to deliver their pastor from duties so difficult and delicate, which belong not to his sacred office.
6. Discipline so administered serves to promote the peace of the church.
An unruly member of the church often has the address to raise a violent party. In every communion may be found a certain number of hasty, restless spirits, who are ever ready to rally at the cry of bigotry, intolerance, persecution, however unjustly raised. The contention may rise high and rend the whole church asunder, if the minister alone becomes, in their fiery zeal, the object of attack. The only