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heard, if I had not been commissioned by my heavenly Father to fill the office, and answer the character you have ascribed to me. And this I affirm to you, that the confession of faith which you have now made, and the belief of this single article, of my being the Messiah, is that fundamental truth on which my religion shall be established; and whatever may be the attempts of its enemies to prevent its reception in the world, it shall still spread, and finally prevail over all opposition.
This is the evident meaning of the text. But as the use of words without clear and precise ideas annexed to them, gives occasion to the grossest errors, and the most material perversion of the plainest things; and as this effect has been produced in no instance more remarkably than in the misconception of what is really meant by the word church, I shall in the following discourse consider, first, the Scripture meaning of that term; and shall, secondly, shew that, according to our Saviour's declaration, no danger can possibly befal it.
First. The word "Church," in Scripture, as well as in profane authors,* invariably means an Assembly." Wherever there was a number of
* Exkλŋσia, amongst the Greeks, meant an Assembly, called together upon any public business, to enact laws, &c. Εβουλομην μεν, ουν, ω Αθηναιοι, τας Εκκλησιας ὑπο των εφεστηκοτων ορθως διοικεισθαι. Æschines passim.-Θεων Εκκλησία, Deorum Concilium, an Assembly of the Gods. Lucian.
Christians, small or great, collected together, that meeting was called "a Church;" and it took its name from the persons who assembled, not the place in which they met. Nor was it any particular order or description of persons amongst them, but the whole body assembled, that constituted this "Church." A few instances will serve to prove this. "Salute Priscilla and Aquila, and the church which is in their house;"* which means a number of persons professing Christianity in that particular house or family, and has no manner of relation to the place itself where they were assembled; but the persons or family in it are styled "the church." "No church communicated with me, but ye only." The Apostle addresses himself to the Philippians, as "the Church;" remarking the difference between their conduct towards him, and that of others. "Ye are come to the general assembly and church of the first-born." These terms are synonymous, and so they are translated in two passages of the Acts. "The assembly was confused;" "He dismissed the assembly;"§ which senses could not be given to the word church, supposing it to have been the place of meeting. "If the whole church be come together in one place;" that is, if all the Christians of a certain district be as
+ Phil. iv. 15.
Heb. xii. 23.
* Rom, xvi. 3-5. § Acts xix. 32, 41: ἡ Εκκλησία συγκεχυμενη--απέλυσε την
1 Cor. xiv. 23.
These and other instances in scripture oblige me to give this construction to the word Exxλnoia. The congregation, and not the place, forms the idea of it.
As there was no particular place appointed for these meetings, so neither were there any persons appointed to preside, with any degree of power or authority, over the rest; but a general equality prevailed amongst them. They acknowledged no other superior than Christ. He is styled "the Head of the Body, the Church;"* that is, the whole society. And to shew the perfect equality that subsisted between the members of it, they are all styled brethren. "The Head of every man is Christ." He had no other superior in religious matters.-The Apostles themselves enjoyed no power but what related to their divine mission, the power of working miracles, of prophesying, and speaking with tongues. And even these powers were imparted, by the Apostles, to all Christians in general, and were not confined to any particular order amongst them. Stephen, who was chosen by the congregation to the menial office of serving tables, preached, "and did great wonders and miracles among the people." The qualifications required of those who were to fill the most important offices in the church, were age, piety, and prudence; and as far as the powers of persuasion, example, and gravity could go, they might exercise them to the full: *Coloss. i. 18. + 1 Cor. xi. 3. Acts vi. 5. 8.
but supremacy and spiritual dominion they had none; and where the interests of the gospel were not immediately concerned, the Apostles and Elders had no more power than private Christians. If an offence was committed by one Christian against another, and the matter could not be settled privately, or by the friendly interference of one or two others, the church itself, that is, the whole assembly of Christians, was consulted in the last resort. "If he shall neglect to hear them, tell it to the church."* If he did not submit to this decision, he was excluded the society, which was the whole of their excommunication. The rules relating to this discipline, amounted to little more than a direction not to keep bad company; and the great bond of union which held this society together, was love and charity.
This is the account we have of the church which Christ established; which, for its piety and simplicity, may well deserve our admiration. And if a comparison were drawn between it and modern churches, the utility and advantages it possesses, above those human institutions; nay, I had almost said, its direct opposition to them all, would be too conspicuous to be dissembled. There was no stress laid upon the place where Christians should meet, nor any intimation given, that one sort of edifice was more proper other to assemble in, for the worship of God; a
* Matt. xviii. 17.
peculiarity which, with some people, enters very much into their idea of a true church, and of the efficacy of their prayers offered up in it. All were invited into it, without any discrimination of sect or party, Gentile as well as Jew. "Preach the gospel to every creature,”* was the commission, and the terms were as plain : "He that believeth, and is baptized, shall be saved." The conditions of admission into a church, at this time, are not so easy. Many things are required to be believed, which are not in the gospel, before a person is allowed to enter into it. It cannot, therefore, be "preached to every creature" in that unlimited degree it was ordered, as there are many who refuse to receive it, on account of those other articles of faith which have been superadded to it. There was no distinct order of men who had exclusively appropriated to themselves the denomination of the church, or what we now call the clergy. But "unto every believer was given grace, according to the measure of the gift of Christ." In greater degree, indeed, to some than to others; and for the sole purpose "of perfecting the saints for the work of the ministry, for the edification of the body of Christ;" not to be lords over the faith of others, or to exercise a spiritual supremacy. We read, indeed, of Elders and Bishops, or Overseers, who were to inspect the conduct of their Christian converts, and who,
* Mark xvi. 15, 16.
Ephes. iv. 7, 11, 12; 1 Cor. xii. 7, 11.