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Finally, others employ the term church to denote the office-bearers of a Christian congregation, or of a denomination, in distinction from the body of the faithful. To support the Presbyterian mode of church government, this meaning must indeed be given to the term. Nothing, however, can be more vicious than the mode of reasoning resorted to by those who thus explain it. To prove the Divine authority of Presbyterianism, the point to be established, they attach to the word church, in certain passages, a sense perfectly uncalled for,—which it does not bear in other passages, and which is, moreover, in direct contradiction to scriptural usage; for it is remarkable that, though the New Testament does not, in any other passages than those referred to, (we deny, of course, that it does even in these,) employ the term church to denote the office-bearers in contradistinction from the body of the faithful, it does use it more than once to distinguish the body from the officebearers. Thus, when Paul and Barnabus went up from Antioch to Jerusalem, we are told that, on their arrival, “they were received of the church ;” and, as if to guard us against conceiving that the term denotes here the office-bearers, the historian immediately adds, “and of the apostles and elders.” The church at Jerusalem was then the body of the faithful.
A church of Christ is not then a denomination, but a single congregation of Christians. It is an assembly, though an assembly of a specific character, having specific objects in view ; all of which will come under consideration in the subsequent pages.
In the meantime, the reader is requested to observe the wisdom developed in the application of the term Ekki noia to such an assembly. It was in common use, we learn, among the Gentiles, who would constitute, for the most part, the Church of Christ. It very fitly distinguished Christians from the Jews, who called themselves the Synagogue; and, above all, it was congruous to the thing; since a Christian church consists of a number of individuals called out from the world by the Word and Spirit of God, and united together in voluntary combination, that, by a stated observance of Divine ordinances, they may secure their own edification, and advance the glory of their Master. The preceding definition renders it manifest that a formal, visible, and permanent union must have been established amongst a number of Christians before they can be regarded as a church. A church is compared to a body; but, as it is justly observed by the American platform of church discipline, “ Hands, eyes, feet, and other members, must be united, or else, remaining separate, they are not a body.” It is further compared to a house ; but “ stones, timber, though squared, hewn, and polished, are not a house until they are compacted and united; so saints or believers, in the judgment of charity, are not a church unless orderly knit together.” This union, by which they are constituted a church, is effected by a real and express agreement amongst themselves to meet constantly together in one congregation, for the public worship of God and their own edification. They express this agreement by their constant practice in coming together for the public worship of God, and by their religious subjection unto the ordinances of God there.
THE DESCRIPTION OF PERSONS OF WHOM A CHURCH OF
CHRIST SHOULD CONSIST.
We have seen that the spiritual fabric, denominated a Christian church, is not built up of unconscious, but of living materials : that it is an assembly of men and women. The next step in our progress is to exhibit their distinguishing character, since the materials must not merely possess life, but a specific kind of life, or the building cannot be a fit habitation of God through the Spirit.
A Christian church should consist of those, and those only, who make a credible profession of faith in Christ, and give satisfactory evidence of real conversion to God. There is no law in the New Testament touching the manner in which this profession should be made; and hence a diversity of practice in reference to this point, may exist, and does exist in congregational churches ; some requiring from all applicants for church-fellowship an oral statement of their views of Divine truth, and their personal experience of its influence and power ; others expecting only a written statement; while others, again, are satisfied with the report of conversations held on these subjects with the applicants by messengers deputed by the church. These may be allowed to be matters of minor importance ; still it seems scarcely consistent with the general principles of Dissenters to exact, in all cases, conformity with a certain mode of admission to church-fellowship, which does not rest on the authority of the word of God. A church has only a
right to adopt satisfactory means of verifying the Christian profession and character of the applicant. With the confidence that he is a believer in Christ, its members can welcome him with joy and love. Without such confidence, they could not welcome him at all. It thus becomes a point of great importance, in the admission of members, to lay before the church as full an account as can be obtained of the religious principles, experience, and character of all who seek fellowship with the body.
The following arguments are sufficient, it is conceived, to support the great principle, that a Christian church should consist exclusively of believing and regenerated men and women.
First. The primitive churches appear to have admitted into their communion those, and only those, who gave satisfactory evidence of their faith in Christ. Thus, we are told, that on the day of Pentecost, there “were added to the church about three thousand souls ;' but the whole of them had gladly received the words of Peter, Acts ii. 41. “All that believed,” it is added, “ continued daily in the temple, praising God, and having favour with all the people, and the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved,” or rather the saved, Acts. ii. 47. The apostles, on being delivered from confinement, “ preached the word of God,” we are told, with boldness; “and the multitude of them that believed were of one heart, and of one soul,” &c., Acts iv. 32. After the death of Ananias and Sapphira fear came on all who heard the tidings, so that none but real converts to the faith of Christ durst join the band of the faithful; but “ believers,”! it is said, “were the more added to the Lord,” i. e. the church, “ multitudes, both of men and women.”
Further, the character of the persons who obtained admission into the primitive churches may be gathered, not merely from the history of the early propagation of Christianity, to which I have just alluded, but also from the manner in which those churches are addressed in the
various epistles written to them under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The members of the church of Rome are, for instance, designated “the beloved of God, the called, the saints.” Those who belonged to the Corinthian church are denominated “the sanctified in Christ Jesus, the called, the saints ;” and the Apostle, wrote to them in common, he adds, “ with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours,” 1 Cor. i. 2. In the commencement of his epistle to “the saints in Christ Jesus, which were at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons,” we find the following words: “I thank my God, upon every remembrance of you; for your fellowship in the Gospel, from the first day until now; being confident of this very thing, that he who hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ,” i Cor. i. 3—6 : and the language he employs in his letter to the church at Ephesus is, in more parts of the epistle than one, such that I will venture to pronounce it totally at variance with the opinion that any individuals were either received into its communion, or retained in it, at least after their characters had become fully developed, whose conduct afforded decided evidence of the absence of real religion. Eph. i. 3-9, 12–15; ii. 1-7 ; iii. 14—21.
Against this reasoning it has been objected that there were unbelievers in the primitive churches; and I have no wish to deny that false brethren did occasionally creep in; nor, further, that the reins of discipline were held by some of those churches with too loose a hand. That however, in so far as it prevailed, was an evil. To infer that we may suffer discipline to become relaxed, because this may possibly have been the case with one or other of the primitive churches, is to maintain that we may do wrong in imitation of their bad example. They were commanded “to purge out the old leaven,” “to put away from among them wicked persons,” “to withdraw from every brother that walked disorderly;".