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cious.* The advantages of this feature of Congregationalism multiply, the farther they are traced. 1. Ample provision is made for the regulation of those matters of common interest which concern the churches at large, and of those af. fairs of particular churches, to the settlement of which they singly are inadequate. Councils are the organs through which the whole brotherhood of churches declares its judgment to single churches, and the body of Christ guides its separate members in orderly and harmonious action. Although it stops short of lording it over the consciences of men, it is yet no less efficient than other systems of church polity,which wield this imperial authority. It is efficient, because it is God's way, and is therefore made mighty through him. It is efficient, because it gains the conscientious, cordial,
unforced consent of those who are
thus guided, when the same decision, forced upon them by absolute authority, might provoke hostility and resistance. It is efficient, because it is “the judgment of the many,” regularly ascertained and formally expressed. It is efficient, because in fact no churches have been more blessed with order, purity and peace, than the Congregational.
2. It provides for liberty of conscience. Although the reader's attention has already been called to
* In confirmation of this view of the power and influence of councils, see Ratio Disciplina, pp. 182, 183. “It is an acknowledged principle in respect to councils, that they possess only advisory powers, in other words, their decisions are addressed to the understandings and consciences of men, and are enforced solely by moral obligations. * * * Their proper business is to give Light. Nevertheless, as those by whom they were called are supposed to have been sincere in their request, it is incumbent on them to examine the opinions or decisions given, with prayerful, honest and unprejudiced minds. hen their temper is F. they will generally find good reason to agree with the council.”
this great peculiarity, its importance warrants a further notice of it. At this point, as we think, our Congregational forefathers displayed a more thorough and delicate insight into the true genius of Christianity, than any who lived before them since apostolic times, and most who have lived after them. The conscience must be untrammeled, if we would have it unperverted and undefiled. It must be held in direct contact and communion with God, and be uncoerced, except as he coerces it. As it enters deeply into the purity and vigor of religion, so it has much to do with all freedom, manliness and dignity of character, in short, with the elevation of our whole nature. The extent to which liberty of conscience is preserved in various parts of Christendom, is a pretty exact index to the whole state of religion. The great mass of church politicians have deemed it impossible to secure this freedom, without opening the door for universal anarchy and intolerable confusion. It is the imperishable glory of our Puritan fathers, that they solved this great problem in a system of government which reconciles freedom of conscience with order and unity. 3. If it reconciles the just liberties of particular churches with the welfare of the whole body, it no less reconciles them with the just rights and liberties of individual church members. Suppose, for example, that a church member be excommunicated, and, as he deems, unjustly, by the church to which he belongs: he may refer his case, by appeal, to a council of other churches and their pastors. If the council decides that the sentence against him ought to be revoked, the church will probably hear this advice, and act accordingly. But should it be otherwise, should they deem it a clear case, that they can not conscientiously restore the supposed offender to their fellowship, the decision of the council does not absolutely bind them: for it is a cardinal principle, that councils, being human, are not infallible. But, although the aggrieved person should not be restored by this particular church, he has gained his redress. Any other church may lawfully, and without offense, receive him, on the ground of his acquittal by the council. Thus the mutual rights of churches and individuals are beautifully guarded and harmonized by this scheme of Divine Wisdom. 4. This scheme of church polity duly combines and proportions all those ingredients which, in human governments, are found to produce the most salutary results. Through the delegates of the Christian people, the popular and representative element has its just influence, and must forever prevent any encroachments on the part of the ministry, and stifle in the germ every tendency towards uncontrolled hierarchical power. On the other hand, the ministry can guard their own office against all invasion of its just prerogatives. They form an intelligent, considerate and conservative body, who temper crude and ill-advised movements by their superior knowledge, and infuse into the whole assembly, wisdom, stability and dignity. So far as judicial action devolves upon councils, they comprise what all experience has shown to be the strongest bulwarks of right and justice, a body professionally learned in the law, and a jury of the people. Thus the analogy is complete between them and the best constituted human governments. OBJECTIONS ANswer ED. 1. It is sometimes objected to this system, that, by its own confession, it is powerless. Repudiating all pretensions to authority, it gives mere advice, which all men are at liberty to give, and all are at liberty to reject. It, after all, leaves the unruly to do as they please. May not any man or company of men give advice, whether organized as
an ecclesiastical council or not? In reply, let us ask, has not any one power to expound the Scriptures, and press divine truth Jupon the conscience 2 What advantage, then, has the preaching of the regular ministry over the harangues of unordained lecturers and exhorters? Simply this, that the ministry is an ordinance of God for the “perfecting of the saints and the edifying of the body of Christ.” Being divinely instituted, it is divinely blest, and empowered to “commend the truth to every man's conscience in the sight of God.” So of ecclesiastical councils. They are, as we have already shown, God's ordinance, his chosen way of giving light to the churches, and guiding them in the paths of heavenly wisdom. Therefore they enjoy his blessing, when rightly conducted, and, however frail in themselves, are armed with that excellency of power which is of God, far more potent than all the devices of human wisdom, all the mandates of lordly authority. So far as their workings are unmarred by human depravity, their counsels are not barren or impotent, but come to the churches, “not in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance.” 1 Thess. i., 5. Not only so, but all incidental influences concur to give them efficacy. They come with a kindly and winning, and not a forbidding or provoking aspect. It is the nature of a good man to listen to a serious appeal to his reason and conscience, when he would revolt at a peremptory mandate which forestalls both. Moreover, the weight of a council's decision with the public is such, that a church can not refuse submission to it, without either showing strong and urgent reasons for its course, or forfeiting the confidence and favor of sister churches. Nor is this a merely theoretical view. It is but a history of the actual ordinary working of Congregationalism. The councils
of New England have generally obtained as much deference for their decisions as bishop or presbytery, and have been quite as successful in promoting order and unity, truth and godliness. 2. It is alleged that this system af. fords no sufficient protection against the inroads of heresy and apostasy. It is said, that if any church or churches espouse fatal error, or uphold flagrant sin, the most vigorous remedy we can apply, is to advise them to abandon it; that we are therefore in danger of nourishing the most pestilential heresies or sins in the very bosom of the church, with no effectual power to suppress or expel them. But the only foundation of this objection is ignorance. There is an ample remedy in noncommunion. If a church, after due labor for its recovery, obstinately persists in fatal heresy or sin, it is the privilege and duty of other churches to withdraw fellowship from that church, and thus guard themselves against the contagion. They are to withdraw from every brother, and much more from every congregation of brethren, that walketh disorderly. This individual churches may do on their own motion, if they are conscience-bound. But it is usual, as it is more safe and becoming, to forbear, until they obtain the sanction and co-operation of other churches represented in council. Thus the orthodox churches of New England dealt with Socinianism, and purged out this old leaven, which threatened to leaven the whole lump. While Congregationalism has this remedy, it is the last and highest that can be had under any system whatever, which does not enforce spiritual by civil penalties, and sharpen their pangs with the trenchant thong of persecution. For this ghostly tyranny it is now too late to contend. But it may and doubtless will be rejoined, What advantage then remains to you, on the score of liberty
of conscience, which you have so ardently dwelt upon, as one of the crowning merits of your system * We answer, that it can not justly be called an invasion of the liberties or rights of any body of men, to refuse to own and treat them as a sound or pure church of Christ, when they furnish no evidence of being so, but plainly show themselves to be incorrigible apostates from the truth and holiness of the Gospel. But between this wholly antichristian state and a condition of perfect soundness and purity, there lies a broad interspace, in which are various degrees of error and imperfection, blended with much truth and feeling; so that the foundation remains firm, although the building has much that is crude and unsightly. Churches of this description are Christian churches, and so to be accounted and treated, and therefore to be welcomed among the brotherhood of churches, notwithstanding the hay, wood and stubble, which deface and partially hide the gold and silver and precious stones. Now this wide range. of imperfection in churches, which, while it mars their beauty and hinders their prosperity, still falls short of subverting foundations by fundamental and fatal error, in various ways comes under the discipline of higher ecclesiastical bodies, for its correction and removal. But if these councils come to the peccant church with an unconditional mandate, instead of an appeal to reason and conscience, does it not provoke resistance Suppose then it be disobeyed. Suppose the church say they can not in conscience comply with it. It is clear that, in this case, no alternative remains, but to excommunicate the offending church from their fellowship, for a scandalous contempt of their authority. They are forced to this disastrous issue, no matter how trivial was the original fault, which they aimed to correct. But when the decision of a council is in its nature advisory, no such consequences are neces
sary, even if a church refuse com
pliance. No contempt is implied in such a refusal, because the advice was not imperative. Hence Congregationalism does not decapitate churches or, ministers, or rend Christian communions, for those diversities of opinion which, in real Christians, are incident to this imperfect state, or for heresy in the bud, before there has been time to kill or cure it. A little reflection will convince all, that it is owing to this feature of our church polity, that the union of Congregational churches has survived the same causes of discord which rent the Presbyterian church into two hostile communions; a disruption which, as truth and peace are now returning, most of our Presbyterian brethren fervently deplore. Thus also is demolished the last objection to Congregationalism, viz. that it is an insufficient bond of union. It unites churches not by chains of absolute power, which are easily snapped asunder, and if they can enforce uniformity, can never produce unity; but by the most potent and enduring of all ties, even “charity which is the bond of perfectness.” Hence there is always the endeavor, and generally successful too, to “keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.” Repellant influences among them are the less violent and divisive, because they are not held in perilous contiguity, or sprung to their extremest tension by the strong hand of absolute authority. The embers of discord often die away, simply because they are not blown into a flame. Moreover, purely local and personal contentions can not spread beyond their own neighborhood, so as to convulse and perhaps divide the entire communion. An offending or heretical minister is censured or deposed by his own association, or a council in the neighborhood. His case is at
an end. He can not carry it up to an assembly, or conference, or convention representing the entire communion, and of course can not spread the agitation among them. We have no such extended bodies wielding supreme powers, and presenting an arena for the intrigues of ambition, and the pugilism of party. Hence in this tempestuous day, the Congregational churches are at peace, while of other communions, some have been already torn asunder; and the great convocations of others, attract the earnest gaze of the world at their fierce contentions; and show decided symptoms of their speedy dissolution.* OccAsionAL AND PERMANENT CouncILs compared. By occasional councils we mean those which exist only for single cases. The parties calling them determine what churches and ministers they will invite to meet in council on a given occasion. If these accept the invitation, they thus constitute the council, which expires with the occasion that called it into being. Thus when churches depend upon occasional councils for advice and assistance, a new council is formed for each new case, and so formed as to be the creature of the parties seeking its advice. Permanent councils, technically called consociations, are formed by a permanent confederation of churches in a given district. All the pastors of a circle of churches thus confederated, and such delegates as the churches may appoint, (each church being entitled to one.) constitute a consociation. And when the theory of this system is faithfully carried out, no other councils are known, but all “cases ecclesiastical” which are beyond the province of single churches, are brought be. fore the consociation. As there is a diversity of opinion among Congregationalists on this subject, some advocating permanent, and others occasional councils, we also will show our opinion. The advantages of the consociational system are claimed by its advocates to be 1. That it affords increased security for impartiality and justice in its decisions. Occasional councils are avowedly the creatures of the parties consulting them. Such is the nature of man, that if he have the liberty of choosing his own judges, he will select those who are known to be favorable to his side, if he can find them. In all ordinary cases, in which contending parties appeal for the settlement of their dispute, or a church desires to carry a point however wrong, it will be neither impossible nor difficult to find ministers enough within a large communion, who agree with them, to form the council. In all contentions, therefore, if both parties agree in convoking a mutual council, it will be in danger of being equally divided, in which event the quarrel is prolonged and aggravated, instead of being healed. If the council be er parte, its decision of course will have little weight with the party that refused to concur in calling it. It is obvious that a tribunal created by the parties appealing to it, falls far below one constituted independent of them, before which they must litigate their disputes, if they litigate them at all, in the impartiality, justness, and weight of its decisions. So in another class of cases, which involve no contentions, the superiority of consociations is manifest. Suppose a church desires to obtain the sanction and aid of a council in settling an incompetent, irregular, or heretical minister. They may be able, by hunting over the land, to conjure up a council of congenial spirits who will install him in the sacred Vol. III. 22
* The reader's attention is called to the recent division of the Presbyterian church, and that still later of the Methodists, and to the distracted and threatening condition of the Episcopal body.
office, when an impartial council of neighboring churches would have unanimously discarded him. 2. Hence it is obvious that fixed councils have the stronger tendency to preserve and promote soundness, purity and stability in the ministry and churches. They form a stronger enclosure around the flock of Christ, and leave fewer avenues, through which grievous wolves can enter in to destroy them. 3. It must be their own fault. if they do not excel occasional councils, in dignity of character and accuracy of proceeding. A standing known body continuing from year to year, and from age to age, must obtain more respect and consideration among men, than an ephemeral organization, which is born to-day and dies to-morrow. It can only divest itself of this superiority by gross misconduct. Withal, a permanent body gradually gains in skill, facility and accuracy in the transaction of business. By reason of use, its senses are exercised to discern both good and evil. With its usages, rules and precedents, furnished by long experience, it is in a great measure delivered from the danger of crude and rash decisions. 4. It is a powerful bond of union, and medium of fellowship among the churches. This is too obvious to need enforcement. Indeed so palpable is the need of some such union among the churches, that those who have opposed consociations have strongly advocated conferences,” which are like them in bringing the churches together by their pastors and delegates for mutual quickening, consolation and admonition, the promotion of their own welfare, and the advancement of the cause of Christ. But they differ from consociations in abstaining from all those judicial and other offices which are devolved on councils. But surely if such a confederation of churches
* See Ratio Disciplinae.