« 上一頁繼續 »
subject that they have profited so far by the conversations held with them-and that good hope may be entertained of their growing proficiency. If it were a common practice to guide the less informed applicants through a course of catechetical exercises before receiving them into communion, and if persons so deferred were made aware that theirs was no isolated case, but simply an exemplification of common usage, all appearance of special and personal affront would be done away; and the excellent effects of the system would more and more facilitate its operation. This is, in fact, the plan pursued in many, if not all our congregations; and where it is most fully tested, causes the least irritation, and is found to be productive of most edification and thankfulness.
A minister or elder, in conversing with applicants, should have it in view not only to ascertain their acquaintance with doctrinal and denominational principles, but also to discover what spirit they are of, and whether they speak of religion as those who feel its value and have experienced its power. There is much need for caution in this province, lest we usurp the office of the Searcher of Hearts; but still, knowledge may be uttered with a marked heedlessness and irreverence not easily reconcileable with godly fear; while just views may be associated with a humility ard seriousness in stating them, strongly corroborative of simplicity and godly sincerity.
Supposing each applicant thus conversed with, repeatedly and apart, what other steps should be taken to test honesty of profession? Attestations should be
asked from parties the best qualified to give them. It is good to obtain as many of these as possible, though some of them may be of less value than the rest; because facts of consequence are occasionally developed where the disclosure of them was least expected. Some churches make light of testimonials from certain other churches, and scorn to ask or take them as any evidence of saintship; but the consequence is, that abandoned and impenitent offenders are sometimes admitted by them, whom other societies had rejected. Though written testimonials are useful, still greater benefit often results from asking references to christian friends, and communicating with such parties orally. People will say what they will not write, and speech has much significance which writing wants. It should be asked whether the person, if he be the head of a family, be known to observe family worship; whether he ever formed or attended prayer meetings; whether he be regarded and spoken of as a truly religious person, etc. etc. Such inquiries must of course be exceedingly varied, according to the circumstances. Were such faithfulness of scrutiny habitually and impartially instituted, improper applications for admission into the church would be reduced in number, while those of a satisfactory character would be increased, and the session would find its duties become both easier and pleasanter. A healthful tone of piety in a church has the same tendency to scare the impious. When it becomes understood that all the members of the church give as God hath prospered them for the maintenance of
his cause, the avaricicus and niggardly will not relish such fellowship. When congregational or district prayer meetings become so well attended that attendance on them is expected, and a failure in it is noticed and remarked upon, a prayerless person will connect himself elsewhere. The practical efficiency of a church is thus intimately allied with its purity, and the improvement of either is the advancement of both.
It remains to add, that much perplexity may be looked for in reducing these principles to practice. That none but christians should belong to the church of Christ, is a maxim commanding ready assent. But to know what we should do, and how far we should go, in ascertaining who are christians, is often a problem of very difficult solution. Sometimes there is little evidence to be had, and the case, in its own nature, may not allow of much; but, when all that exists is favourable, it is a questionable proceeding to deny Christ's ordinances to those who are probably his people. No set of rules can be instituted for our guidance, because piety may be proved or disproved in any one of numberless ways; and the cases to be considered are so different, that each must be decided on its own merits. It may be said that, where there is any doubt, it is best to err on the side of caution, and exclude for the time. But there is always doubt; for we have no discernment of spirits, no absolute knowledge of the people of God, and the question still recurs, what degree of doubt demands and vindicates postponement of admission? We must have some
standard or other in our minds by which we try requisite qualification; and whatever that standard may be, whether it be high or whether it be low, we have still to determine what, in many cases, is very hard to be determined, whether the person applying come up to it or not? The difficulty which thus hangs over the duty should dispose every elder to think forbearingly of the manner in which other elders discharge it. Let each for himself elicit all the evidence he can of true christian character. When a case is submitted by the brethren in the eldership, let him freely and fully express his views of the testimonies proffered. But if, after all this, the session receive one whom he would have rejected, let him remember that persons may hold the same principle of pure communion, and yet differ in the application of it; and let him give all the rest equal credit with himself for wishing to promote the church's highest interests.
SECT. 5.-It belongs to the session, in their collective capacity, to administer church discipline; for the purity of the church must be respected, not only in the admission, but also the superintendence of its members. The duty is of high importance. 'It was one of the greatest glories (says Bishop Burnet) of the primitive church, that they were so governed that none of their number could sin openly without a public censure and a long separation from the holy communion; which they judged was defiled by a promiscuous admitting of all persons to it. Had they consulted the arts of policy, they would not have held in
converts by so strict a way of proceeding, lest their discontent might have driven them away, at a time when to be a christian was attended with so many discouragements, that it might seem dangerous, by so severe a discipline, to frighten the world out of their communion. But the pastors of that time resolved to follow the rules delivered them by the apostles, and trusted God with the success, which answered and exceeded all their expectations; for nothing convinced the world more of the truth of that religion than to see those trusted with the care of souls watch so effectually over their manners, that some sins which, in these loose ages in which we live, pass but for common effects of human frailty, men were made to abstain from the communion for many years, and did cheerfully submit to such rules as might be truly medicinal for curing those diseases in their minds.'* When persons deny the offences laid to their charge, and the session is constrained to lead a proof of guilt, this province of duty may become delicate and arduous. In general, however, it is not necessary to have recourse to a formal trial. Firm and affectionate dealing, based on a well-informed acquaintance with the case, commonly secures a full acknowledgment of the truth, and is also the appointed and appropriate means of reaching the grand end of discipline-the edification of the offender. Very much might be written on this head; but I deem a prolonged discussion of it unnecessary. If the elders extend those attentions to the backsliding which we have seen to * Hist. of the Reformation. Pref. to Part II.