« FöregåendeFortsätt »
The Power of the Congregational Principle.
It cannot be denied that the most powerful influence, intellectual and moral, that can act on the human mind, is communion with God and subjection to his influence through his word. Nothing so ennobles and so healthfully develops the intellectual powers. Nothing gives to the mind such true enlargement and comprehensiveness of vision. Nothing so quickens and perfects the moral sense. Nothing gives such courage and energy to adhere to the right. Nothing so searches the heart, reveals sin and error, and delivers from delusion. Nothing so surely guides in the study of all truth, theoretical and practical. But the grand, the vital idea of Congregationalism, is to bring all men, as individuals, into habitual communion with God, and to keep them under his influence, through his word. For this very reason it avoids ecclesiastical monarchies, and all large centralized organizations. For this reason it denies the existence of two orders of Christians, one of which, as a clerical caste, has dominion over spiritual things, and is the essential medium of intercourse with God to the other class. It teaches that all Christians are kings and priests to God; that all have, through Christ, direct personal access to the Father; that all can enter the holy of holies. This was the original apostolic doctrine and practice. A distrust of the reality of this divine power of God over all men as individuals, and a fear to rely on it, lead to hierarchies. A caste of spiritual rulers, to act as mediators between God and common men, and to centralize them in religious monarchies or aristocracies, is felt to be needed to take care of the church. Confidence is reposed in the great whole, so organized. In one sense, this view produces a strong government. It is strong to prevent free, general, and popular intellectual growth and development. It is strong to enslave the human mind to the traditions of men. But to produce universal popular development, in the highest and noblest form, it is not strong. It does not tend to a universal reign of God through intelligent regenerated men, organized in free, self-governed people.
On the other hand, Congregationalism is powerful in this direction. It centralizes the local church around God's word in the Bible as its supreme law of thought, feeling, and action. It aims to bring each individual under the direct influence of God, through the Bible. It thus makes God the great centre of all things, and not a human monarch, nor the church. It aims to make each man a king and a priest to God, intelligent, God-governed.
Thus the rejection of the hierarchal principle, that is sometimes alleged as the weakness of Congregationalism, is the very source of its peculiar and highest power; for it centres all things around God in his word.
We are now able to understand the grand peculiarity of Congregational councils. They are a mode of securing and expressing that unity, sympathy, co-operation, and fellowship among Christians, which grow out of the nature of God and the universality of his kingdom, without introducing the hierarchal principle.
Viewed in their relations to God, there is a unity among all regenerated persons, which they can neither make nor unmake. They are, in the nature of things, so united to Christ, that, in the strong language of inspiration, they are "members of his body, of his flesh and of his bones."
If they act in sympathy with God, through his word, they must aim at the same great ends. They are one by reason of the unity of divine thought, ends, purposes, and emotions, proceeding from that God who is above all, and in all, and through all. Hence from the nature of God, and the universality of his kingdom, originates a unity, sympathy, co-operation, and fellowship, among all Christian churches, which Congregationalism acknowledges its obligation to develop and preserve.
The hierarchal principle it regards, as we have seen, not only as not adapted to this end, but as in spirit diametrically opposed to it. It therefore excludes it.
This exclusion of the hierarchal principle is the grand peculiarity of Congregational councils. As soon as they lose this, the system loses its vital element of power, and is transformed into one of the many hierarchal systems with which Christendom has been filled.
A council is an assemblage of the representatives of any number of Congregational churches, to investigate and give light on doctrinal or practical questions of common interest, to give advice in difficult cases, to express fellowship, to aid in forming churches, in ordaining and dismissing pastors, in conducting difficult cases of discipline, and in removing divisions and dissensions.
A council convened for any of these ends receives its fundamental character from two great facts: 1. that the Bible, and that alone, is its fundamental constitution and only standard; 2. that the churches retain the right of judging all its decisions by the Bible, and accepting or rejecting them, as they are found to agree with it. On this point, the Cambridge Platform is express. Concerning the decisions of synods and councils they say, that they are,
so far as consonant to the word of God, to be received with reverence and submission;" without such agreement, they say, "they bind not at all." Of course the churches must judge for themselves of this agreement. In general, they say that "synods and councils are not to exercise church censures in a way of discipline, nor any act of church authority or jurisdiction." In these views eminent Congregational writers are unanimous.
If, in view of this statement, it should be alleged, as it often is, that councils are devoid of power, let the following things be considered :
1. That personal holiness, and a sense of the presence of God, and prayer, all of which the Bible requires in a council, do more than anything else to remove the causes of error and division, and to lead into all truth, whether doctrinal or practical.
2. That the truth itself, when clearly stated, in a right spirit, has great power.
3. That the aid of the Holy Spirit is always granted to those who act prayerfully, and in the name of Christ, in such assemblies.
4. That those who are to be acted on are, as a general fact, regenerated, spiritual men, even if in error or in sins.
Bearing these things in mind, it cannot but be that a Congregational council, conducted in the true spirit of the system, should be a body of great power. It is indeed a peculiar kind of power, and so is that of the gospel. The wisdom of God in convincing of sin, in reforming, in guiding into the truth, is concentrated in the gospel. It is the design of a council to develop and to rely on this peculiar power. Errors, delusions, divisions, have their roots in the heart. It is the design of councils, through the revelation of God in the gospel, to reach and to remove the root of the evil, to invigorate the regenerated spiritual nature, and to destroy the power of the flesh. This is especially true in cases of discipline, or of division and strife.
Nothing can better illustrate these principles than a reference to actual facts. In a work by William Wisner, D.D., entitled "Incidents in a Pastor's Life," on p. 114, occur's the following statement: "A congregation in central New York was thrown into great disorder, and for years had its influence for good paralyzed by a quarrel between two of the leading families in the village. Various efforts had been made to settle the difficulty without effect, when the church, with the consent of the contending parties, agreed to submit the whole matter to a number of ministers not belonging to that presbytery, of whom I was one. Invitations were accordingly sent to those persons who had been agreed upon by the church and the parties, and we all assembled, on the day appointed, to enter upon the business for which we had been selected. I was chosen chairman of the council, and the parties were present with their advocates and their witnesses, all in readiness to commence the contest. But as the council belonged to other presbyteries than the one with which that church
stood connected, I called for the commission under which we were to act; when, to our surprise, we were informed that their presbytery had not even been consulted on the subject. We at once agreed that we had no power to act officially in the matter, but recommended to the church and the parties to unite with us in a season of prayer for the gracious interposition of God's Spirit. All seemed to fall in with this proposal, and we adjourned from the place which was intended as the arena for a desperate conflict between the brethren, to a place where prayer was wont to be made. As this was about ten o'clock in the morning, we continued at the throne of grace until twelve, when we had a recess for dinner. After dinner we reassembled, and engaged again in our supplications for the restoration of peace and love to that afflicted church. In a short time one of the offending parties came forward, and, with many tears, confessed that he had been awfully guilty, and begged the forgiveness of God, of the other party, and of the church, for his unchristian conduct. As soon as he sat down, the other party came and insisted that he was the guilty origi nator of the trouble, and that if his brother had done wrong, it was in consequence of provocation which he had given, and he wished the forgiveness of his brother and of the church and of God. The two principals having thus been brought to repentance, those who had become their partisans followed their example, and, for a long time we sat there hearing brethren who had been engaged in an unholy strife, confessing their sins to one another, and praying for one another." From this originated a revival of religion, of which he gives an account.
Here are presented the true elements of that highest power, to which a council may always resort, a sense of the presence of God, the quickening of the spiritual nature, the illuminating and the searching power of the divine Spirit, and the vision of eternal realities. In this case, the church in fact had assumed the Congregational right to call a council without leave from the presbytery. The want of