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removed from the people and placed in the hands of officers and institutions entirely beyond their power. The ministry who are in no sense dependent on the people, practically govern the whole church. They are really a self-creating and perpetuating body; for they usually, if not always, have the numerical number even in bodies by which ministers are ordained and disciplined.
Thus we see that these three prevailing forms of ecclesiastical polity like the papal system set at nought as it respects individual churches, the principles of independent or selfgovernment, and lay down authoritatively, the doctrines they must embrace, and the practice they must conform to—all of which is spiritual despotism, and apostasy from the original plan of church organization.
Every form of church government except that which rests on purely independent grounds, agrees substantially with one of the four forms we have just examined; and indeed, these four forms, as we have seen, are only different species of the same genus. To examine, therefore, in detail, the governments of the oriental churches, or of many of the feebler denominations of Protestant Christendom would be needless. Nothing but pure independency or Congregationalism, can bear the true test. But much of the Congregationalism of this day is not pure. The difference between the practices of Congregationalists in New England and elsewhere now, are widely different from what existed in the early history of the Puritans. Then the churches were practically free. They chose their own officers and teachers, made and administered their own laws independently. Now the ministry have gained a control over the churches which was unknown then, and which often resembles too nearly, spiritual despotism. Congregationalism, in some parts of New England, now, especially in Connecticut, is such only in name.
But to show that the prevailing forms of church government now existing, have sadly departed from those of primitive times, and that they are despotic in their nature, is not enough; for it is often maintained that the form of government which is best adapted to the wants of the people is the true form, whether it be despotic in its character-whether it be such as the church first adopted or not. Without questioning these premises, let us pursue the enquiry independently of the argument thus far presented-are these forms of government which we have examined, under any circumstances ever adapted to meet the wants of the people; or which amounts to the same thing, to secure the true ends of government?
What are the real objects to be secured by ecclesiastical organization and polity? The grand object of civil governments is or should be to protect natural rights—to defend the weak against the aggressions of the strong. There may be other interests to secure, but these are the most important. But is this the great and legitimate object of ecclesiastical governmenr? By no means. It has always been a common practice—and nothing has resulted in greater evil—to draw analogies and parallels between church and state—just as if both were instituted for the same purpose, and what is right for one must of course be for the other. Church government presupposes that its members have abandoned the disposition to do that which civil governments are instituted mainly to prevent-namely, trampling on the rights of others. It assumes that the law. of love is already written on the hearts of its members, and that what is now needed is some welldirected plan by which their own christian graces may be developed, and their efforts for the world's evangelization be well directed. To realize this object then, is the great end of church organization and government. But to realize this end, its members must be encouraged to think closely and independently, and to realize their individual responsibility in whatever relates to the affairs of the church. It was seen at the commencement of this article that perfection in any government consists in conferring upon its members the greatest freedom of thought and action consistently with securing the true ends of government.
Now it may well be asked, Are the prevailing forms of church government which have been examined, constructed and administered in harmony with these views? Do they encourage free and independent thought on all religious subjects? Instead of this they lay down for the church an infallible rule of faith and practice, and it is heresy, just as much in Protestant as in Catholic Christendom, to doubt a single syllable. Do these governments place upon their members the greatest responsibilities in the management of their affairs? Nearly all responsibility, as we have seen, is removed from their hands as fully as if they had no concern in the matter whatever. This being so, one of two conclusions follows:either that these are all the liberties that
ecclesiastical governments can with safety to their true interests confer on their members, or that these governments themselves rest on a false foundation. To adopt the first conclusion, is to affirm that the mass of Christians, even in the United States, are too wicked or too ignorant to be entrusted with such matters, a conclusion, which, to say the least, implies as wide a departure from all modesty on the part of religious rulers as self-complacency could well ask for. It amounts almost to a denial of their Christian character. It is assenting to the validity of the argument urged in self-justification by every despot on earth. We are driven then to the other conclusion--that these governments rest on a wrong basis.
The argument that national church governments, and governments administered by church officers, secure more union and more efficiency than any others, can have no weight, so long as this efficiency, much of it, must go necessarily to bind the intellects and consciences of Christians, and to prevent trúe moral progress in the world. Equally vain is the plea that it makes no difference what the form of government is, if it be not abused in its administration. It makes a grand difference whether government harmonizes with the laws of mind, and the true objects of government, or not.
If it fail here, conduct it as you will
, it is nothing but abuse. Such a plea, though we have often heard it from the lips of protestants, is all the pope could ask for. It would well nigh sustain slavery itself.
But the subject must not be dropped here. Whether these organizations rest on a true or a false foundation, it is painfully evident that in their actual operations, their influence upon society, all things considered, is greatly evil. If, as we have endeavored to show, their basis is a false one, it cannot be otherwise than evil, since in morals the superstructure reared upon a principle is never better, and generally worse than the principle itself.
We are not at all disposed to join hands with those who can see nothing connected with these organizations but unmingled evil. It is to be feared, that in nine cases out of ten, those Come-outers who set themselves so violently in opposition to all ecclesiastical organizations, do it not so much because of their abuses, as because they are opposed to all government, civil and ecclesiastical. Such persons generally oppose an independent form of government as violently as any other; thus proving that their hatred to government itself, notwith
standing their professions, is vastly greater than their hatred of its abuses. With such persons we have no sympathy. That church governments, badly as they have been managed, have brought some good to man, we do not deny; but they have brought immense evil with it. This evil has resulted, much of it, necessarily from their being constituted as they have been. Governments fashioned after the independent system would have afforded immeasurably greater blessings than have now been enjoyed, and the evils of which we complain might have been avoided. The choice is not between such governments as we have, and no government at all, but between those that now exist, and such as ought to exist. Doubtless one of the greatest objections to the church governments of this day is that they stand directly in the way of introducing better.
Having thus defined our position,” it is time to specify some of the evils which ecclesiastical organizations have inflicted and are inflicting upon society.
To speak of the evils with which the papal power has cursed the world is needless. It has already been shown that the great pillars of government in the papal and in most of the protestant systems are substantially the same. They all remove the government from the hands of the people, and vest it with church officers. These officers all claim the right to prescribe rules of faith and practice, and to administer discipline. In one other respect, though they differ in theory they agree in practice—they all profess infallibility and maintain their claim to it. Protestant churches, no less than the papal, have their standards of belief fully drawn out on every doctrinal point which they deem important. To depart in a single particular from these standards, is heresy, and he who dares to do it will be arraigned and condemned, and if not burned, yet excommunicated and cast over to the devil as a heretic. Now what does all this imply but the claim of infallibility. It assumes that our standards contain "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth;" and therefore to depart from them is to be guilty of “great and dangerous error,” and to deserve just what the pope inflicts, and for the same reason-excommunication. This is popery itself, and yet this is what most of these organizations have been doing from the beginning of their existence, and never more effectually than now.
Nearly every one of the prevailing forms of church government now existing, during some period of its history has
wielded the sword of persecution even to the death of heretics. When union of Church and State, and the influence of the former over the latter has not permitted all this, they have seldom failed to go to the full extent of their crushing the influence and blasting the Christian reputation of all who, however conscientiously, have withdrawn assent from any of their doctrines, or denied their right to rule over them. In many cases they have refused all appeal from their standards to the Bible itself; and in this respect out-done even popery. In cases of discipline, it has often been affirmed by grave ecclesiastical bodies, that the church creed and not the Bible, is the only standard of decession.
Free and independent enquiry after truth, instead of being encouraged, is, so far as these organizations have an influence, on multitudes of vastly important questions, prohibited. Let a private member of one of these churches begin the work of sober, honest thought; and let him, by the increased light of the present day, be led to the rejection of some points of faith or practice which were laid down as orthodox by his fathers, centuries ago; and what will be the result? At first he will be treated coldly; then the name of fanatic and enthusiast will be attached to him. If this fails to drive him back within the pale of orthodoxy, or at least to prevent the advocacy and spread of his views, he is brought before the ecclesiastical court, excommunicated, and held up as a warning and reproof to others. Suppose a young man to be a candidate for the gospel ministry, his theological dimensions must be of an exact length and breadth, or, no matter what his other qualifications, he is rejected. He is told most emphatically, during his whole course of study, as well as when he knocks at the door of the ecclesiastical court for admission, which he has to do, that, on pain of never entering the sacred desk, he must only think as his fathers did before him. If he shuts his eye, dwarfs his intellect, and goes into the ministry a fettered man, what are now the conditions of an honorable standing among his brethren? He must adopt the maxim, “Our church, right or wrong," or he will either be thrust back through the door by which he entered, or be compelled to preach the gospel, if at all, in some obscure corner of the earth, where, from very starvation, he will be tempted to betray his conscience and his God. But as a general rule, those who enter the sacred office with padlocks on their lips and intellects, and hearts, will never cast them off.