It is to us, at all times, a matter of no small joy, to witness a disposition on the part of our brethren, to examine the divine rule, and to inquire at the sacred oracle for the validity of every institution of our religious practice. The attention of several of our dear brethren, in these parts and elsewhere, has lately led to the subject of Associations, and it will be seen that the result of their investigation, thus far, has not produced a unanimity of sentiment on the subject. Some are of the opinion that the New Testament provides neither precept or example for them, and other some conceive that the assembly which convened at Jerusalem, on the question from the Antioch church, amounts at least to an example. We have listened with a good degree of interest to the arguments thus far brought forward, pro and con; and without designing to check the discussion of so important a point, we esteem it our privilege to offer our brethren a few remarks which have occurred to us, on the subject, in doing which we shall probably accord, in part, and in some things differ from all who have furnished us with their views.
In the first place we admit that what we call "Associations," are, or are not divine institutions; they are, or are not directly and positively warranted in the New Testament. If from the Scriptures we can show them to be divinely instituted, and precept and example given for their observance by the church, then we must consider no church complete and independent, or walking in all the ordinances blameless, which do not stand in such connection associated with other churches; and if on a careful examination we find that what we denominate "associations" are not divinely authorized, we must admit (painful as it may be) that we have and do observe a religious practice, for which there is no "Thus saith the Lord;" and we may be subjected to the fearful interrogative, "Who hath required this at our hand?"
But to the merits of the question. Are they from heaven, or of men? We have failed to see with some of our brethren whom we love, that the assembly referred to at Jerusalem, furnishes the least testimony in support of what we denominate "Associations;" and if we can produce no other, or more tenable ground for them, we shall be disposed to give them up, notwithstanding our feelings are strongly, very strongly, enlisted in favor of them. Without going minutely into the comparison of modem associations, with the meeting at Jerusalem, we will observe a few particulars which to us present serious discrepancies. First, those who form our modern associations are Elders and brethren, sent by their respective churches, as messengers, or what is by far more exceptionable, delegates.
The meeting at Jerusalem, was not composed of messengers, or delegates from the churches, but the apostles and Elders came together for to consider this matter. (Acts 15:6) And the whole church, not delegates from the church (see verse 22,) and the Holy Ghost, (verse 28). But our modern Associations are not composed of apostles, the Holy Ghost, and the whole church. The regulations of many associations of our acquaintance, restricts the churches in regard to the number of messengers to be sent. We have said this council at Jerusalem was not composed of messengers from churches represented in that meeting. True there were messengers (not delegates) present from the church at Antioch, but let it be observed these formed no part of the council, but were merely messengers of Antioch church, to the council and other messengers of their own company (verse 22) bore the message of the Holy Ghost, the apostles and elders and the whole church, to Antioch. How our brethren can make this meeting an example for modern associations, without involving the right of associations to rule in judgment, if not in legislation over the churches, we are unable to perceive; yet all our brethren agree that the churches are the highest religious body on earth, and contend earnestly for the independence of the churches.
Another discrepancy which we would notice as we pass; as being, in our judgment, no less formidable than the foregoing, is that the council at Jerusalem was not, nor did it pretend to be, a constituted body, independent of, or separate from the church, having a written constitution and by-laws for their special regulation; and a body to be continued, and to hold annual sessions for business, to impose yokes and grant exemption from burdens, from time to time, as might seem good to them and their successors in all subsequent ages. The apostles, seated on the twelve thrones, for the express purpose of judging the spiritual tribes, the Holy Ghost, whose office it is to write the law of the new covenant in the hearts of the spiritual family, and the church, which is divinely empowered and qualified to judge angels, assembled as they were, certainly were in possession of power which would not become us, in what we call "associations."
The wretched work of New School Baptist associations in arrogating such powers as were exercised by the council at Jerusalem, has very justly excited great alarm among our old fashioned brethren. While the former have attempted to rank and file, or mark the ground of distinction observed by all anti-christian bodies, of clergy and laity, and in their assumed consequence have attempted to legislate for the Zion of God, to take into their hands the destiny of the world, the direction of those acknowledged as God's ministers, and appoint the field of their labors, the term of their services, and the manner and amount of their reward: meeting from year to year, binding heavy burdens, grevious to be borne, and binding them on men's shoulders. Now they resolve that one thousand dollars shall be raised from their churches for the home mission, alias, to send Arminians out to trouble and distress the peaceable churches of the Mississippi valley; but mark us! they themselves touch not these burdens with one of their fingers, to bear any share of the burden. We might continue to trace the unhallowed consequences resulting from this sort of associations, for truly they have caused the saints to howl, until their cry has come up into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth, Who is, we trust, about to deliver them.
After what we have written our readers may suppose that we renounce associations in to to, but such is not the fact; for while we wash our hands from all such associations as we have described above, we hold most sacred and dear the association of the children of God, upon Gospel ground; and while we deny the divine authority of any constituted religious body, except the church of God, as such, we are prepared to show from the practice of the primitive saints, that it is proper, lawful and expedient that the saints should associate together, for social worship, for correspondence, for mutual edification and instruction in righteousness, and for the promotion of that christian fellowship and Gospel union which is like the oil which was poured on Aaron's head, and like the dew of Hermon which descended upon the mountains of Zion, &c.
Where the object of our Old School brethren in coming together is to worship God, and to inquire after the welfare of Zion, and to encourage each other in walking in all the ordinances and commandments of Christ blamelessly, we say to all such, where providence permits us to attend, "Entreat us not to leave thee. Thy people shall be our people, and thy God shall be our God. Where thou livest, let us live," &c.
If any, or all of our associations have been led off from the simplicity of the Gospel track, let them correct the wrong, renounce it and flee from it. But to cease from "christian correspondence" among the churches which are in fellowship, would be to run into as great an error as that from which they attempt to fly. We should not contend for constitutions, or anything which would have a tendency to characterize associations as an organized, or standing body, apart from the church; yet we conceive that a full understanding of the terms of correspondence, or association, is essential, and should be agreed to, reduced to writing and published in order to prevent, as far as possible, the amalgamation of heterogeneous materials in such religious assembles.
There can be no lack of Scriptural testimony that the primitive churches of Christ kept up a correspondence, and that the disciples were in a habit of mingling together for religious worship, and mutual edification, wherever, and whenever opportunity served; and such meetings we would call "associations." They, however, being not so parliamentary in their forms of communicating with each other as modern professors are, could generally proceed to worship, or to edify, without waiting to elect by ballot a Chairman, or President (Moderator) and being minute men, could even preach an introductory sermon without being appointed for that purpose twelves months in advance!
In regard to corresponding meetings, on the principle of those held at Occoquan, and at Bethlehem, Virginia, within the last two years, and referred to by brother Chrisman, in his late communications on associations; we had the pleasure of attending the latter, and was highly gratified with the order, harmony and Gospel union which was abundantly manifested on that occasion.
A very general sifting has commenced among some of the professedly Baptist churches and associations; there are many of the former as well as of the latter of these, with whom we could not walk in fellowship a few years ago, among whom the missionary fever has been raging like a pestilence; but now we behold them emerging from that corruption which then obscured their glory, and taking their places among the regular churches of our communion: and while a redeeming spirit pervades our associations, and those connected with them are seriously inquiring for the old paths, may we not hope they will soon shake off every human device, and every unscriptural practice, and shine forth in unsullied splendor, in the glorious truth and order of the Gospel of Christ.
The primitive churches on various occasions, sent messengers to deliver messages, contributions, &c., for them. It is therefore lawful for Old School churches to send their messengers to report their welfare, for the comfort of sister churches, and to bring back word of the prosperity of the cause, among such sister churches. Such messengers, when assembled with a sister church, may unite in worship, in preaching, and in the general improvement of all the gifts among them. Such a meeting we would call an "association," and against such associations we conclude there is no law.
In the foregoing we have given some of our views on the subject. Our columns are open for the views of our brethren, judiciously written, on the same subject; we recommend moderation and free discussion. Let us prove all things, and hold fast that which is good.
Elder Gilbert Beebe, 1838