Images de page
PDF
ePub

CHAPTER VII.

The Value of the Eldership. It may be profitable before bringing this work to a close to illustrate the value of the Eldership.

There are two dangerous extremes, between which, as some destructive Scylla and Charybdis, the church of God has pursued her hazardous and ofttimes fatal course. To these we will first advert.

The first of these extremes is the undue exaltation and power of the Christian ministry, which leads to spiritual despotism, and terminates in consequent corruption.

The love of power and domination is one of the most strongly manifested principles of man's fallen nature, and stands out most prominently in the blood-stained history of our apostate race.Equally certain is it that those elements in human nature which constitute man a religious being, and which bind him over to the unalterable destinies of a future and unseen world, are the most sure and effectual means by which such spiritual power can be established and upheld. Hence it is that the chief influence and sway over the minds and consciences of men has exer been exerted by the priesthood. And just as the character of religious teachers has been pure, elevated, and noble, or corrupt and debased, has their power been found to work out the degradation or the welfare of society.

The teaching of the doctrines, and the administration of the ordinances and discipline of the Christian church have been intrusted, by its divine Head, to an order of men who constitute the ministers of the sanctuary. And, while human sagacity and care must ever be insufficient to prevent the entrance of unholy and nnworthy persons into this sacred office, it is also certain that even in those who are truly Christian the natural love of power may exert its influence, under the assumed pretext of a just and necessary zeal for the honor and glory of God. From both these causes it was early found that the Christian ministry, at least to some considerable extent, arrogated to itself an undue authority in the church; claimed the possession of all heavenly gifts, so as that these could not be received except through their hands; and separated the clergy from the laity by a high wall of mysterious sanctity; until at length the laity were excluded from all interference with ecclesiastical arrangements, and were taught to look with implicit faith and reverence to these spiritual depositories of heavenly grace, for all saving and divine communications.

Such an exclusive management of the whole business of the church would, of course, insensibly lead its ministers to introduce rites, ceremonies, and doctrines adapted to secure the establishment of these spiritual claims. For this purpose it was taught that the gifts and graces of God were vested as a sacred deposit in the ministry, and were only to be obtained through their instrumentality. For this purpose were the people made to believe that sins committed after baptism were scarcely, if at all, remissible, and that when remitted it was only through the penances prescribed by these priestly mediators. For this purpose was the cup withheld from the laity, and the Lord's Supper changed into the idolatrous service of the mass. For this purpose were auricular confession, pilgrimages, indulgences, consecration of places and of utensils, and all the other forms, rites, and ceremonies, which have been from time to time adopted, made of primary and indispensable importance. By these and similar methods was the ministry exalted and the laity humbled; the form clothed with the prerogatives of God, and the latter despoiled of the rights and immunities secured to them by Christ. Spiritual despotism being thus established, the corruption of the entire system of the gospel was a necessary and unavoidable consequence, since in its purity it asserts the liberty of its disciples, emancipates them from the yoke of servility to their fellow men, and introduces them into the glorious liberty of the children of God.

Now this system of iniquity yet works, and the principles which lead to it are, and ever will be, common to every inheritor of our fallen humanity. Christian ministers now are, by nature, what they ever were and ever must be, weak, erring, sinful, and fallible mortals. The tendency of this corrupt nature would of itself lead them to the assumption of undue power, and of unauthorized prerogatives, and to the consequent perversion to their own carnal purposes and professional aggrandizement, of the oracles of God.

How admirable, therefore, is the wisdom of God in providing a counteracting agency in the people, and in their delegated representatives, the Christian Eldership, by which the approaches of this spiritual tyranny may be checked, and the first inroad of heresy stayed. These are representatives of the people, chosen and delegated by the people, and not by the ministry. Ruling elders are in constant and familiar intercourse with the people. They are, or ought to be, numerous. They are independent of the clergy. They can carry an appeal from their decisions to all the appointed judicatories of the church. And thus, if they are in any good measure faithful men, they may effectually guard the members of the church from the possibility of all ecclesiastical tyranny; and the doctrines of the church from all ecclesiastical perversion by a wily, selfish, ambitious, unconverted, or heretical clergy.

"Wherefore," says Hilary or Ambrose, in the Commentary usually attributed to him, (on 1 Tim. 5: 1,) "both the synagogue and afterwards the church had seniors, without whose counsel nothing was done in the church; which order, by what negligence it grew into disuse I know not, unless perhaps by the sloth, or rather by the pride of the teachers, while they alone wish to appear something." Nothing, therefore, has been more violently resented by High Church prelatists of every age than this interference of the laity with what they arrogantly claim as their sole and exclusive jurisdiction. The eldership has consequently been declaimed against as an "inquisitorial court not to be endured,"* and at this very moment is it boldly declared by the divines of Oxford that the admission of the laity in any form into the ecclesiastical assemblies of the American Episcopal church, is a manifest usurpation which must be overthrown.t

In the early ages of the church the right of the people to a participation in the government of the church was, as we have seen, never questioned. They voted for their pastors even as they do in Presbyterian churches now, and were summoned together whenever the election of a Bishop became necessary. I Thus in the year A. D. 448, as Bede informs us, Germanus and Lupus were sent from France into England to suppress the Pelagian heresy. A synod or council was summoned at Verolam, (St. Albans,) in which the people, the laity as well as the clergy, had decisive votes in determining points of doctrine. "The ancient method," says Burns, "was not only for the clergy but the body of the people within such a district to appear at synods, of whom a certain number were selected to give information, while four, six, or eight delegates, according to the extent of the parish, represented the rest, and sat with the clergy as testes synodates."**

It was from a conviction of these truths, and from a belief that such officers were absolutely necessary to withstand those excesses of tyranny practised by the Romish clergy at and before the period of the Reformation, that Calvin in 1542 revived these rules in the Christian church at Geneva, as they had been already elsewhere.it

Since then it appears that when the usurping power of prelatical ambition ruled over God's heritage, this office, which gave an interposing authority to the people, was discontinued ; and that when the church was roused by the Spirit of God to throw off that spiritual despotism, she found it necessary to summon to her aid these divinely authorized officers; and since the same tendency to undue and arbitrary authority is native to corrupt humanity, and will therefore ever manifest itself, the value and importance to be attached to the office of the Christain Eldership must be at once apparent.

*Whitgift's Defence, Soames, Eliz. Rel. Hist.

* See British Critic, as fully quoted in my Lectures on the Apost. Succes. pp. 309-312. See Clarkson's Primitive Episcopacy. ŠEccl. Hist. lib. i. c. 17, in Bib. Repert. 1837, p. 15. **Burns' Eccl. Law, vol. i., p. 408. #1 See Brown on Ch. Gov't, p. 126.

Such has ever been its influence in the reformed Kirk of Scotland; so that when the Book of Canons was sent to Scotland in 1635, by authority of King Charles, but in reality through the influence of Archbishop Laud, it constituted one chief item in the list of grievances against which the nation boldly protested, that thereby "lay-elders were rejected."* And it will be manifest to every attentive reader of the history of the Church of Scotland, that both at the period of her first and second reformation, it was only by the bold, uncompromising, and steadfast adherence to the cause of covenanted truth, by the representatives of the laity, the cause of reform was maintained against the combined power of Erastian plunderers and Romish plotters; and that but for their resolute and persevering stand, the cause of Presbyterianism would have been in some cases sold into the hands of powerful rulers.

To the elders, in connexion with the pastor, is committed the authoritative administration of the discipline of the church, both as a preservative against error, and also against immorality; and the purity or impurity, the prosperity or adversity of the church since the Reformation will be found to coincide with the degree of their faithfulness or unfaithfulness in the exercise of this double spiritual power.

When General and Provincial Assemblies were suppressed in Scotland, and presbyteries neglected, ministers became negligent, immorality and heresy prevailed, and Popery increased. I And the present lamentable condition of the church in Germany, where infidel and unchristian tenets have beeen substituted for the pure word of God, is also traceable to the deficient constitutions of the German churches, their entire want of control over the opinions of their own ministers, and their wild licentious exercise of the right of private judgment on every question, however mysterious and momentous. These evils have been so strongly felt, and their cause so clearly discerned, that measures are in progress for the establishment of a more efficient church government and discipline. Not

*See Life of Henderson by Dr. Aiton. See do. do. pp. 311, 312, 317, 322, &c. Ibid, p. 157. $See Rose on, in Bib. Repert. 1826, pp. 405 and 449.

8-VOL IV.

[ocr errors]

only is this true of the continental church generally-it is most lamentably exemplified in the church in Geneva, where the worldly character of the elders, and their exclusion from the highest ecclesiastical court, which is composed of clergymen merely, have enabled unprincipled men gradually and most insidiously to supplant with Socinian formularies all the existing standards of the church.

So, also, in England, the lax discipline, and the imperfect constitution of the Old Presbyterian churches (for Presbyterianism never was fully carried out in that country, and therefore never could exert its full efficiency) gave occasion to the corruption of doctrine and the degeneracy of piety.

"It is of the very greatest importance,” says the Rev. Mr. Thomson, in the Scottish Christian Herald, "to ascertain the causes of this remarkable and deplorable decline of Presbyterianism. The grinding persecutions to which Presbyterians were subjected by Cromwell, an Independent, and by the faithless Episcopalians, under the Stuarts, prevented them from erecting the platform of their scriptural polity, and familiarized many to the more attainable, plastic, and accommodating institutions of Congregationalism.

“Presbyterians began to look upon forms of church government as not of Divine institution; they regarded them as merely human expedients for the preservation of order; and that, therefore, a church might be just as rightly constituted under one form as under another; they talked, indeed, of Episcopalianism's being adapted to rich and gorgeous England, and of Presbyterianism's being adapted to poor and homely Scotland. The necessary consequence of this miserable delusion was, that the strictness of discipline gave way; Presbyterianism came to be branded as stiff, rigid, puritanical and unaccommodating; and numbers of the churches lapsed into Independency, and thence sank into Socinianism. By many churches which did not go the whole length of this declension, alliances and agreements were entered into with Congregationalists, which but opened a door for admission into the congregations of the more acceptable doctrines of the latter, who broke the pactions as soon as they saw that this purpose had been sufficiently served. Seldom were pains taken any where to instruct the people in the counsel of God, respecting the form and government of the church. Every thing relating to such matters was rather, indeed, studiously kept out of sight. The result was inevitable—the people became ignorant of the subject, and as indifferent to it as they were ignorant of it. The consequence was, that the framework of Presbyterianism was, in many places, gradually and utterly dissolved; and congregation after

See Dr. Heugh's Religion in Geneva and Belgium.

a

« PrécédentContinuer »