Among the various religious denominations where churches are formed into what are called associations, there is much difference in regard to the subject of ecclesiastical power vested in them. But as the enquiries of our correspondent relate exclusively to those of the Old School Baptists, we will confine our remarks to them. But as we are not authorized to define the views of all Old School Baptists on the subject, we will not hold any of them responsible for such views as we may give; but we will only say that the following views are substantially what we understand to be the views of the Old School Baptists generally.
An Old School Baptist Association is a community of Old School Baptist churches, harmoniously agreeing in faith and practice, who, for the purpose of general edification, and correspondence, and to strengthen each others hands, and for mutual comfort, agree or covenant together, that they will meet together periodically, as often as they may agree, by messengers - bearing letters from the several churches, certifying the due appointment of the messengers, and giving information of the state and condition of the churches, of their steadfastness in the faith and order of the gospel, of their general prosperity or adversity - that they may participate in each others joys and griefs as the case may be. This association, or intercourse, is to be kept up so long as all the several churches may continue to walk together in fellowship and harmony. No church of our order is required to unite in this arrangement, to entitle them to our fellowship as all must be in fellowship before they can be admitted into the arrangement.
All Old School Baptist Associations, so far as our knowledge extends, assert emphatically the independence of the churches as such, and disavow the right of the association to interfere with their acts of church discipline. We claim that the power is vested in every church of Christ to discipline her own members according to the rule given in the New Testament, without the interference of any other religious body on earth. Or, in other words, that the church of Christ, when acting according to the word and spirit of Christ, is the highest court under heaven, and from her decisions there is no court of appeals divinely authorized on earth.
Nevertheless, if any church, either in or out of any such associational compact, shall manifestly depart from the faith or order of the New Testament, the association, and every orderly church, and every individual disciple, may, and is in duty bound, to withdraw, and withhold their fellowship from such disorderly church, as they should from every disorderly brother, until they shall be restored to gospel order.
Associations being intended to facilitate christian correspondence, generally hold correspondence also with sister associations, so long as they are satisfied that they are of one heart and of one mind; and for this purpose they interchange letters of correspondence, in which they severally publish their understanding of the faith and order of the gospel, and by the interchange of ministers and messengers they compare their views carefully from time to time, each association holding the right to drop the correspondence with any association which, in their judgment, has departed from the faith and order of the gospel. In short, the associations have the same right and are under the same obligation in their associated capacity as each individual composing it has, to withdraw from every brother, or church that walks disorderly, but no more; while the authority to adjudicate the case of any brother or sister that may be accused of disorder belongs to the church to which he or she belongs.
Every church, however, while rightfully claiming her conceded right to transact her own business independently of associations - other churches or councils, if she desires to be recognized as walking orderly, will feel desirous of the concurrence of sister churches in her judgment in each case, lest confidence in her order should be shaken, and fellowship impaired.
Universally we have found the maxim of our Lord fully verified; He that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be manifest that they are wrought of God; while it is equally certain that they who do wrong shun the light, lest their deeds should be reproved.
There is a courtesy due from every church to sister churches where cases occur which affect other churches, as in acts of discipline in relation to ministers, deacons, and other prominent members who frequently visit sister churches to seek for a concurrence of judgment in all such cases. But churches actuated by the least humility and christian meekness are the most apt to put themselves upon their dignity - and refuse all friendly advice in such cases and often much to their own injury; while those churches most desirous of keeping the unity of the spirit in the bonds of peace being most jealous of their ability to act, desire to avail themselves of all the counsel of brethren in whom they have confidence.
We are no advocate of Ecclesiastical Councils (so called) to sit as a court over the church, as no church has a right to shift off the responsibility of her acts upon any such unscriptural body, but we do believe that it is in perfect harmony with the spirit and the letter of the Word for churches, in all difficult matters which are likely to involve their standing in the eyes of their sister churches, to secure, as far as possible, the advice (not dictation) of faithful brethren from abroad, and after considering their advice duly, to act for themselves.
We have thus far indulged in some general remarks, and much more might be written on the subject, but we will come more directly to the case supposed by the enquirer after the Truth.
The case as stated supposes a preacher, having a standing as pastor in an Old School Baptist Church which is associated with other churches professing the same faith and order, has fallen into error in faith or practice, so that a portion of the church of which he is a member cannot fellowship him, but the majority of the church, because they sustain him in his error, is it necessary that all other churches of the association act with the disorderly minister because his disorder is endorsed or winked at by a majority of the church?
Our judgment on this supposition is that the churches being associated or unassociated, providing they have recognized each other as sister churches, makes no difference. If the righteous decision of a gospel church, walking in unquestionably gospel order, is final, and no other church has any right to annul or interfere with it, it does not follow that if a church depart from the order of the gospel in sustaining a disorderly pastor, that other churches are bound to endorse or respect their unrighteous decisions, for that would rob orderly churches of their independence, and give undue power to disorderly churches to drag others into their disorder.
Individual members, or minorities of churches, ought to be exceedingly cautious of taking ground against the judgment of the majority - lest they become factious, unruly, heady, high minded, and contentious. But there may be cases where it is their duty to dissent from the action of the majority. And the case supposed above, if correctly stated, we think is undoubtedly one. We hold that no church act, whether passed by a majority or a minority, or even if it be unanimous, can be binding unless it be dictated by the spirit and letter of the divine rule. When, therefore, whole churches, or associations of churches, depart from the faith and order of the gospel they are (if they cannot be reclaimed) to be dropped from the connection of all orderly churches, associations and brethren. How can we walk together if we be not agreed? When a minister departs from the divine rule, either in doctrine or practice, or in both, it concerns more than the church in which he holds his membership. Most ministers are ordained and set apart to the work by a presbytery called together from churches of the connection. The reason of this is that they maybe competent to preach or administer ordinances in any church of the same faith and order when they may be called on so to do. Their commission, if called of God to preach, is in all the world, and to every creature; hence, all are very deeply interested in his character and standing, and as the church to which he belongs, as well as the presbytery by whom he was ordained, including the churches to whom the members of the presbytery belong, are to some extent responsible for his character, and as his public standing makes his disorders more prominent than those of private members, a departure on his part from the truth in doctrine, or any unbecoming course of conduct is attended with bitter results not only to himself, personally, but to the church, the churches, and all who desire to be fed, comforted, and edified by his ministry; and a greater reproach falls upon the cause of truth and righteousness of which he professes to be the advocate. Hence, the very solemn charge, not only to the minister, but also to the church, as to the character they shall bear - men full of the Holy Ghost, not given to much wine, no strikers, of good report of them which are without, good disciplinarians, of unexceptionable morals, as ensamples to the flock, keeping their body - or the passions and carnal propensities of the body - under control, patient, meek, affectionate, and God-fearing.
Men possessing all these excellent qualities, to a good degree, may nevertheless fail to give full satisfaction to all the members of a church, and they may suffer persecution from the world, but they will bear it patiently for their Master's sake. But in the absence of these characteristics they cannot be of much service to the church of God. If they assume a haughty bearing, and a careless indifference to the complaints of brethren, and fortify themselves by their popularity with a majority in the church, become obstinate and willful, heady and high-minded, they may retain an influence for great evil, but of no benefit to the church, or to the cause.
Parties will naturally arise, divisions will appear, gospel travel will be interrupted and disorder will spread throughout the church, and like a devastating conflagration will extend from church to church until the visibility of the church will be involved in a darksome cloud if not totally obliterated.
A brother or a minister of Christ should not be made an offender for a word, nor for a mere difference of judgment on unimportant subjects. Ministers, as well as others, are in the flesh and have infirmities which need the forbearance and sympathy of the saints, but their ministry should be faithfully and prayerfully watched by the saints. One shall speak and the rest judge. The saints shall judge angels. But this watchfulness must not be with a censorious and fault-finding spirit, but with singleness of he art for the glory of God. And if the minister advances anything in opposition to the word, or to the law and the testimony, approach him tenderly, lovingly, and in the spirit of meekness, and call his attention to the subject. If he willfully persists in error, and the aggrieved brother is satisfied that it is error, let the matter be brought before the church, but only in an orderly way. If the church sustain the pastor, let the aggrieved brother or brethren carefully reconsider the matter, but if fully convinced that it be error, and of an important nature and tendency so that they cannot comfortably submit to the decision, it is customary to request the church to invite sister churches to send faithful and judicious brethren to advise with them on the subject. And it is presumed that if the church feels a consciousness that she is right, she will not hesitate to submit the matter to the judgment of brethren who are unprejudiced, to advise them on the subject. But if they refuse to do so, especially where the matter has assumed such dimensions as not only threaten a division of the church, but to infest sister churches, then an appeal should be made by the aggrieved party to orderly churches of the connection. And if they entertain the complaint, which they will be likely to do in the case supposed, they will correspond with the church, which is said to have departed from gospel order, and if satisfaction be not obtained, the delinquent church will be dropped, with her heretical minister, from the connection of all orderly and sound churches; and the aggrieved members driven out from their former home may be received on profession of faith by those who are of the same faith and order with them.
We confine our remarks to such cases as are described in the supposition in the queries presented. But we would faithfully warn all brethren to beware how they indulge in a factious, or fault-finding spirit. Such a spirit will be detected by all who are spiritual.
The independence of all the churches being equal, the action of one church in sustaining a disorderly minister has no power to impose him upon other churches who being equally independent have as good right to reject him. And on the other hand, the act of one church in expelling members because they cannot fellowship a disorderly minister who is sustained by the church cannot impose the obligation of other churches equally independent, also to reject them from communion and fellowship. But the two churches acting so oppositely can no longer be of the same faith and order, whether in or out of the association. An association, being but a meeting of churches, gives them no more nor any less authority than though they were unassociated. Hence, associations can in no sense be regarded as courts of appeal, their legitimate sphere being only to encourage christian correspondence, love, and union where fellowship already exists.
We have answered the queries of our friend honestly, giving our own views on the subject. Other brethren may differ with us, as we have no right to speak for others, and we claim no infallibility, but are as liable to err as others.
The queries came to us from a portion of the country where there are several highly esteemed churches of the Old School Baptist order, who are not associated at all by any formal organization, and who have heretofore repudiated associations, fearing that they may grow to become instruments of mischief. We have taken the more pains to show that in our view, their being associated or unassociated can make no difference in the case supposed.
May the Lord give us all grace to enable us to walk circumspectly that we may avoid all disorders, live in love and fellowship with all who are of the household of faith, and teach us to "deal justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God."
December 1, 1861.
Elder Gilbert Beebe
Editorials Volume 5
Pages 91 - 97