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Of the communion of churches.
Churches so appointed and established in order as hath been declared ought to hold communion among themselves, or with each other, as unto all the ends of their institution and order, for these are the same in all; yea, the general end of them is in order of nature considered antecedently unto their institution in particular. This end is, the edification of the body of Christ in general, or the church catholic. The promotion hereof is committed jointly and severally unto all particular churches. Wherefore, with respect hereunto, they are obliged unto mutual communion among themselves; which is their consent, endeavour, and conjunction, in and for the promotion of the edification of the catholic church, and therein their own, as they are parts and members of it.
This communion is incumbent on every church with respect unto all other churches of Christ in the world equally. And the duties and acts of it in all of them are of the same kind and nature; for there is, no such disparity between them or subordination among them as should make a difference between the acts of their mutual communion, so as that the acts of some should be acts of authority, and those of others acts of obedience or subjection. Wherever there is a church, whether it be at Rome or Eugubium,2929 See note, vol xv. p. 300 — Ed. [A small town about eighty miles from Rome. The expression is borrowed from Jerome ad Evang.: “Ubicunque fuerit episcopus, sive Romæ, sive Eugubii, etc.”] in a city or a village, the communion of them all is mutual, the acts of it of the same kind, however one church may have more advantages to be useful and helpful therein than another. And the abuse of those advantages was that which wrought effectually in the beginning of that disorder which at length destroyed the catholic church, with all church-communion whatever: for some churches, especially that of Rome, having many advantage, in gifts, abilities, numbers, and reputation above many, above most churches, for usefulness in their mutual communion, the guides of it insensibly turned and perverted the addresses made unto them, the advices and assistances desired of them in way of communion, or their pretences of such addresses and desires, into a usurpation, first of a primacy of honour, then of order, then of supremacy and jurisdiction, unto the utter overthrow of all Church order and communion, and at length of the whole nature of the catholic church, as stated and subsisting in particular churches; as we shall see.
All churches, on their first institution, quickly found themselves indigent and wanting, though not as unto their being, power, and order, yet as unto their well-being, with their preservation in truth and order upon extraordinary occurrences, as also with respect unto their usefulness and serviceableness unto the general end of furthering the edification of the church catholic. The care hereof, and the making provision for this defect, was committed by our Lord Jesus Christ unto the apostles during their lives, which Paul calls Ἡ μέριμνα πασῶν τῶν ἐκκλησιῶν, 2 Cor. xi. 28, “The care of all the churches;” yet what was only a pressing care and burden unto them was afterward contended for by others as a matter of dignity and power! the pretence of it, in one especially, being turned into a cursed domination, under the style and title of “Servus servorum Dei.”
But if a thousand pretences should be made of supplying churches’ defects, after the decease of the apostles, by any other order, way, or means besides this of the equal communion of Churches among themselves, they will be all found destitute of any countenance from the Scripture, primitive antiquity, the nature, use, and end of churches, yea, of Christian religion itself. Yet the pretence hereof is the sole foundation of all that disposal of churches into several stories of subordination, with an authority and jurisdiction over one another, which now prevails in the world. But there is no place for such imagination, until it be proved either that our Lord Jesus Christ hath not appointed the mutual communion of churches among themselves by their own consent, or that it is not sufficient for the preservation of the union and furtherance of the edification of the church catholic, whereunto it is designed.
Wherefore, our Lord Jesus Christ, in his infinite wisdom, hath constituted his churches in such a state and order as wherein none of them are able of themselves, always and in all instances, to attain all the ends for which they are appointed, with respect unto the edification of the church catholic; and he did it for this end, that whereas the whole catholic church is animated by one spirit, which is the bond of union between all particular churches (as we shall see), every one of them may act the gifts and graces of it unto the preservation and edification of the whole.
Herein then, we acknowledge, lieth the great difference which we have with others about the state of the church of Christ in this world. We do believe that the mutual communion of particular churches amongst themselves, in an equality of power and order, though not of gifts and usefulness, is the only way appointed by our Lord Jesus Christ, after the death of the apostles, for the attaining the general end of all particular churches, which is the edification of the church catholic, in faith, love, and peace. Other ways and means have been found out in the world for this end, which we must speak unto immediately. Wherefore it behoveth us to use some diligence in the consideration of the causes, nature, and use, of this communion of churches.
But it must be moreover premised, that whereas this communion of churches is radically and essentially the same among all churches in the world, yet, as unto the ordinary actual exercise of the duties of it, it is confined and limited by divine providence unto such churches as the natural means of the discharge of such duties may extend unto; that is, unto those which are planted within such lines of communication, such precincts or boundaries of places and countries, as may not render the mutual performance of such duties insuperably difficult. Yet is not the world itself so wide but that, all places being made pervious by navigation, this communion of churches may be visibly professed, and in some instances practised, among all churches, “from the rising of the sun, even unto the going down of the same,” where the name of Christ is known among the Gentiles; wherein the true nature of the catholic church and its union doth consist, which is utterly overthrown by the most vehement pretences that are made unto it, as those in the church of Rome.
Wherefore such a communion of churches is to be inquired after as from which no true church of Christ is or can be excluded; in whose actual exercise they may and ought all to live, and whereby the general end of all churches, in the edification of the catholic church, may be attained. This is the true and only catholicism of the church; which whosoever departs from, or substitutes any thing else in the room of it under that name, destroys its whole nature, and disturbs the whole ecclesiastical harmony that is of Christ’s institution.
However, therefore, we plead for the rights of particular churches, yet our real controversy with most in the world is for the being, union, and communion of the church catholic; which are variously perverted by many, separating it into parties, and confining it to rules, measures, and canons, of their own finding out and establishment: for such things as these belong neither to the internal nor external form of that catholic church whose being in the world we believe, and whose union we are obliged to preserve. And whosoever gives any description of or limitation to the catholic church besides what consists in the communion of particular churches intended, doth utterly overthrow it, and therein an article of our faith.
But this communion of churches cannot be duly apprehended unless we inquire and determine wherein their union doth consist, for communion is an act of union that receives both its nature and power from it or by virtue of it; for of what nature soever the union of things distinct in themselves be, of the same is the communion that they have among themselves.
In the church of Rome, the person of the pope, as he is pope, is the head and centre of all church-union, nor is there allowed any union of particular churches with Christ or among themselves but in and through him. A universal subjection unto him and his authority is the original spring of all church-union among them: and if any one soul fail herein, — if, as unto things of faith and divine worship, he do not depend on the pope and live in subjection unto him — he is reputed a stranger and foreigner unto the catholic church; yea, they affirm that be a man never so willing for and desirous of an interest in Christ, he cannot have it but by the pope!
The communion of churches congenial and suited unto this union, proceeding from it and exercised by virtue of it, ariseth from a various contignation of order, or the erection of one story of church-interest upon another, until we come to the idol placed on the top of this Babel. So is this communion carried on from the obedience and subjection of the lowest rubbish of ecclesiastical order unto diocesans, of them to metropolitans, of them to patriarchs or cardinals, of them to the pope; or an ascent is made from diocesan synods, by provincial and national, to those that are called œcumenical, whose head is the pope.
Yet two things must be further observed, to clear this communion of the Roman Catholic church; as, — 1. That there is no ascent of church order or power by a vital act of communion from the lower degrees, orders, or consociations, and by them to the pope, as though he should receive any thing of church-power from them; but all the plenitude of it being originally vested in him, by these several orders and degrees he communicates of it unto all churches, as the life of their conjunction and communion. 2. That no man is so jointed in this order, so compacted in this body, but that he is also personally and immediately subject to the pope, and depends on him as unto his whole profession of religion.
And this is that which constitutes him formally to be what he is, — that is, antichrist; and the church-state arising from its union unto him, holding him as its head, subsisting in a communion by virtue of power received through various orders and constitutions from him, to be antichristian: for he and it are set up in the room of, and in direct opposition unto, the Lord Christ, as the head of the catholic church and the church-state thereon depending. This we have described, Eph. iv. 15, 16: “Speaking the truth in love, may grow up,” etc.; as also Col. ii. 19, where there is a rejection of them who belong not unto the church catholic, taken from its relation unto Christ, and the nature of its dependence on him: “Not holding the Head,” etc.
When men shall cease to be wilfully blind, or when the powers of the “strong delusion,” that begin to abate, shall expire, they will easily see the direct opposition that is between these two heads and two churches, namely, Christ and the pope, the catholic church and that of Rome.
I know well enough all the evasions and distinctions that are invented to countenance this antichristianism: as, “That there is a double head, — one of internal influence of grace, which Christ is, and the pope is not; the other of rule and authority, which the pope is. But this also is twofold, supreme and remote, and immediate and subordinate; the first is Christ, the latter is the pope. And there is yet further a twofold head of the church, — the one invisible, which is Christ; the other visible, which is the pope.”
Not to insist on these gross and horrible figments of a twofold head of the catholic church, in any sense, which are foreign to the Scripture, and foreign to antiquity, whereof never one word was heard in the church for six hundred years after Christ, deforming the beautiful spouse of Christ into a monster, we will allow, at present, that the pope is only the immediate, visible, subordinate head of all rule and authority to their church; which is what they plead for. Then I say, that the church whereof he is the head is his body, that it holds him as its head, that it is compacted together by the officers and orders that depend on him and receive all their influence of church power and order from him: which though he communicates not by an internal influence of grace and gifts, (alas, poor wretch!) yet he doth it by officers, offices, orders, and laws; so giving union and communion unto the whole body by the effectual working of every joint and part of the hierarchy under him, for its union, communion, and edification. This, I say, is the antichrist and the antichristian church-state, as I shall be at any time ready to maintain.
Let any man take a due prospect of this head and this body, as related and united by the bond of their own rules, constitutions, and laws, acting in worldly pomp, splendour, and power, with horrid, bloody cruelties against all that oppose them, and he will not fail of an open view of all the scriptural lineaments of the apostate, antichristian state of the church.
I say again, this assigning of the original of all church order, union, and communion, unto the pope of Rome, investing him therewith as an article of faith, constituting him thereby the head of the church, and the church thereon his body, — as it must be if he be its head, so as that from him all power of order, and for all acts of communion, should be derived, returning all in obedience and subjection unto him, — doth set up a visible, conspicuous, antichristian church-state in opposition unto Christ and the catholic church. But with this sort of men we deal not at present.
There is a pretence unto a union of churches not derived from the papal headship; and this consists in the canonical subjection of particular churches unto a diocesan bishop and of such bishops to metropolitans, which though “de facto” it be at present terminated and stated within the bounds of a nation, yet “de jure” it ought to be extended unto the whole catholic church.
According unto this principle, the union of the catholic church consists in that order whereby particular churches are distributed into deaneries, archdeaconries, exempt peculiars, under officials; dioceses, provinces, under metropolitans; and so by or without patriarchs, to avoid the rock of the Papacy, issuing in a general council, as I suppose. But, —
1. To confine the union and communion of the catholic church hereunto is at present absolutely destructive both of the church and its communion: for all particular churches, when they are by a coalescency extended unto those which are provincial or national, have, both politically and ecclesiastically, such bounds fixed unto them as they cannot pass to carry on communion unto and with the church as catholic, by any acts and duties belonging unto their order; and hereby the union and communion of the church is utterly lost, for the union of the catholic church, as such, doth always equally exist, and the communion of it is always equally in exercise, and can consist in nothing but what doth so exist and is so exercised. Wherever is the catholic church, there is the communion of saints; but nothing of this can be obtained by virtue of this order.
2. We inquire at present after such a union as gives particular churches communion among themselves, which this order doth not, but absolutely overthrows it, leaving nothing unto them but subjection to officers set over them, who are not of them, according to rules and laws of their appointment; which is foreign to the Scripture and antiquity.
3. This order itself, the only bond of the pretended union, having no divine institution, especially as to its extent unto the whole catholic church, nor any intimation in the Scripture, and being utterly impossible to be put in execution or actual exercise, no man can declare what is the original or centre of it, whence it is deduced, and whereon it rests.
Having removed these pretences out of our way, we may easily discern wherein the union, and consequently the communion, of all particular churches doth consist; and in the due observation whereof all that church-order which the Lord Christ hath appointed and doth accept is preserved.
I say, then, that the true and only union of all particular churches consists in that which gives form, life, and being unto the church catholic, with the addition of what belongs unto them as they are particular; and this is, that they have all one and the same God and Father, one Lord Jesus Christ, one faith and one doctrine of faith, one hope of their calling, or the promised inheritance, one regeneration, one baptism, one bread and wine, and are united unto God and Christ in one Spirit, through the bond of faith and love.
This description, with what is suited thereunto and explanatory of it, is all the account which is given us in the Scripture of the constituting form of the catholic church, and of the union of particular churches among themselves. What church soever fails in the essential parts of this description, or any of them, it is separated from the catholic church, nor hath either union or communion with any true churches of Christ.
Two things concur unto the completing of this union of churches, — 1. Their union or relation unto Christ; 2. That which they have among themselves.
1. The Lord Christ himself is the original and spring of this union, and every particular church is united unto him as its head; besides which, with or under which, it hath none. This relation of the church unto Christ as its head the apostle expressly affirms to be the foundation and cause of its union, Eph. iv. 15, 16, Col. ii. 19, — the places before quoted. Hereby it is also in God the Father, 2 Thess. i. 1, or hath God as its Father. And unless this union be dissolved, unless a church be disunited from Christ, it cannot be so from the catholic church, nor any true church of Christ in particular, however it may be dealt withal by others in the world.
From Christ, as the head and spring of union, there proceedeth unto all particular churches a bond of union, which is his Holy Spirit, acting itself in them by faith and love, in and by the ways and means and for the ends of his appointment.
This is the kingly, royal, beautiful union of the church: Christ, as the only head of influence and rule, bringing it into a relation unto himself as his body, communicating of his Spirit unto it, governing it by the law of his word, enabling it unto all the duties of faith, love, and holiness.
For unto the completing of this union on the part of the church, these things are required:— (1.) Faith in him, or holding him as the head, in the sincere belief of all things concerning his person, office, and doctrine in the gospel, with whatever belongs thereunto; (2.) Love unto him and all that is his; (3.) That especial holiness whose foundation is repentance and effectual vocation; (4.) The observance of his commands as unto all duties of divine worship. These things are essentially requisite, unto this union on the part of the church. The reality and power of them is the internal form of the church, and the profession of them is its external form.
2. There concurreth hereunto an union among themselves, I mean all particular churches throughout the world, in whom the church catholic doth act its power and duty. And the relation that is between these churches is that which is termed “relatio æquiparentiæ,” wherein neither of the “relata” is the first foundation of it, but they are equal. It doth not arise from the subordination of one unto another, they being all equal as unto what concerns their essence and power. And the bond hereof is that especial love which Christ requireth among all his disciples, acting itself unto all the ends of the edification of the whole body.
Take in the whole, and the union of churches consists in their relation unto God as their Father, and unto Christ as their only immediate head of influence and rule, with a participation of the same Spirit in the same faith and doctrine of truth, the same kind of holiness, the same duties of divine worship, especially the same mysteries of baptism and the supper, the observance of the same rules or commands of Christ in all church-order, with mutual lodge, effectual unto all the ends of their being and constitution, or the edification of the church catholic.
There may be failures in them or some of them, as unto sundry of these things; there may be differences among, them about them, arising from the infirmities, ignorance, and prejudices of them of whom they do consist, the best knowing here but in part; but whilst the substance of them is preserved, the union of all churches, and so of the catholic church, is preserved.
This is that blessed oneness which the Lord Christ prayed for so earnestly for his disciples, that they might be one in the Father and the Son, one among themselves, and “made perfect in one,” John xvii. 20–23, without any respect unto that horrid image of it which was set up in the latter days of the church, which all men were compelled to bow down unto and worship by the fire of Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace. Of any other union there is not the least mention in the Scripture.
This union of the catholic church in all particular churches is always the same, inviolable, unchangeable, comprehending all the churches in the world at all times, not confinable unto any state or party, not interruptible by any external form, nor to be prevailed against by the gates of hell; and all such disputes about a catholic church and its union as can be so much as questionable among them that profess to believe the gospel are in direct opposition unto the prayers and promises of Jesus Christ. Whilst evangelical faith, holiness, obedience unto the commands of Christ, and mutual love, abide in any on the earth, there is the catholic church; and whilst they are professed, that catholic church is visible. Other catholic church upon the earth I believe none, nor any that needs other things unto its constitution.
These things being premised, I proceed unto that which is our present inquiry, — namely, wherein the communion of particular churches among themselves doth consist.
The communion of churches is their joint actings in the same gospel duties towards God in Christ, with their mutual actings towards each other with respect unto the end of their institution and being, which is the glory of Christ in the edification of the whole catholic church.
As unto the actings of the first sort, the ground of them is faith, and therein is the first act of the communion of churches. And this communion in faith among all the churches of Christ is fivefold:—
1. General, in the belief of the same doctrine of truth, which is according unto godliness, the same articles of faith, and the public profession thereof; so that every one of them is the pillar and ground of the same truth. This the primitive church provided for in creeds and symbols, or confessions of faith, as is known. But as never any one of them was expressly owned by all churches, so in process of time they came to be abused, as expressing the sense of the present church, whether true or false. Hence we have as many Arian creeds yet extant as those that are orthodox. But unto the communion of all particular churches in the world, there is nothing required but a belief of the Scripture to be the word of God, with a professed assent unto all divine revelations therein contained, provided that no error be avowed that is contrary to the principal or fundamental doctrines of it. For although any society of men should profess the Scripture to be the word of God, and avow an assent unto the revelations made therein, yet, by the conceptions of their minds, and misunderstanding of the sense of the Holy Spirit therein, they may embrace and adhere unto such errors as may cut them off from all communion with the catholic church in faith: such are the denial of the holy Trinity, the incarnation of the Son of God, his divine person or office, the redemption of the church by his blood, the necessity of regeneration by his Spirit, and the like. And they may also add that of their own unto their professed belief as shall exclude them from communion with the catholic church: such are the assertions of traditions as equal with the written word, of another head of the church besides the Lord Christ, of another sacrifice besides what he once offered for all, and the like. But where any are preserved from such heresies on the one hand and the other, there is no more required unto communion with the whole church, as unto faith in general, but only the belief before described.
2. This communion in faith respects the church itself as its material object; for it is required hereunto that we believe that the Lord Christ hath had in all ages, and especially hath in that wherein we live, a church on the earth, confined unto no places nor parties of men, no empires nor dominions, nor capable of any confinement; as also, that this church is redeemed, called, sanctified by him; that it is his kingdom, his interest, his concernment in the world; that thereunto, and [unto] all the members of it, all the promises of God do belong and are confined; that this church he will save, preserve, and deliver, from all opposition, so as that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” and after death will raise it up and glorify it at the last day. This is the faith of the catholic church concerning itself; which is an ancient, fundamental article of our religion. And if any one deny that there is such a church called out of the world, separated from it, unto which alone, and all the members of it, all the promises of God do appertain, in contradistinction unto all others, or confine it unto a party unto whom these things are not appropriate, he cuts himself off from the communion of the church of Christ.
In the faith hereof all the true churches of Christ throughout the world have a comforting, refreshing communion; which is the spring of many duties in them continually.
3. This communion of churches in faith consists much in the principal fruit of it, namely, prayer. So is it stated, Eph. ii. 18, “For through Christ we have access by one Spirit unto the Father.” And that therein the communion of the catholic church doth consist the apostle declares in the following verses, 19–22, “Now therefore,” etc.; for prayers in all churches having one object, which is God even the Father, God as the Father; proceeding in all from one and the same Spirit, given unto them as a Spirit of grace and supplications to make intercession for them; and all of them continually offered unto God by the same High Priest, who adds unto it the incense of his own intercession, and by whom they have all an access unto the same throne of grace, — they have all a blessed communion herein continually. And this communion is the more express in that the prayers of all are for all, so as that there is no particular church of Christ in the world, — not any one member of any of them, but they have the prayers of all the churches in the world and of all the members of them every day. And however this communion be invisible unto the eyes of flesh, yet is it glorious and conspicuous unto the eye of faith, and is a part of the glory of Christ the mediator in heaven. This prayer, proceeding from or wrought by one and the same Spirit in them all, equally bestowed on them all by virtue of the promise of Christ, having the same object, even God as a Father, and offered unto him by the same High Priest, together with his own intercession, gives unto all churches a communion far more glorious than what consists in some outward rites and orders of men’s devising.
But now if there be any other persons or churches which have any other object of their prayers but God even the Father, and as our Father in Christ, or have any other mediators or intercessors by whom to convey or present their prayers unto God but Christ alone, the only high priest of the church, or do renounce the aid and assistance of the Holy Spirit as a Spirit of grace and supplications, they cut themselves off from all communion with the catholic church herein.
4. The unity of faith in all churches effecteth communion among them in the administration of the same sacraments of baptism and the supper of the Lord. These are the same in, unto, and amongst them all; neither do some variations in the outward manner of their administration interrupt that communion. But wherever the continuation of these ordinances is denied, or their nature or use is perverted, or idolatrous worship is annexed unto their administration, there communion with the catholic church is renounced.
5. They have also by faith communion herein, in that all churches do profess a subjection unto the authority of Christ in all things, and an obligation upon them to do and observe all whatsoever he hath commanded.
Other instances of the like nature might be given, but these are sufficient to manifest how unscriptural the notion is, that there is no proper communion with or among churches but what consists in a compliance with certain powers, orders, and rites, the pressing whereof under the name of “uniformity” hath cast all thoughts of real, evangelical church-communion into oblivion.
Secondly. Churches ordained and constituted in the way and manner, and for the ends, declared in our former discourse on this subject, and, by virtue of their union unto Christ and among themselves, living constantly, in all places of the world, in the actual exercise of that communion which consists in the performance of the same church-duties towards God in Christ, unto their own continuation, increase, and edification, have also an especial union among themselves, and a mutual communion thence arising.
The bond of this union is love; not the common regulated affection of human nature so called, not merely that power and duty which is engraven on the hearts of men by the law of creation towards all of the same kind and blood with themselves, but an especial grace of the Holy Spirit, acting in the church as the principle and bend of its union unto itself; whence the command of it is called a “new commandment,” because in itself, as unto the only example of it, in the person of Christ, the causes and motives unto it, with its peculiar ends and proper exercise, it was absolutely new and evangelical. An explanation of the nature of it belongs not unto this place; although it be a grace and a duty of so much importance, — wherein so much of the life, power, and peculiar glory of Christian religion doth consist, — and is either so utterly lost or hath such vile images of it set up in the world, that it deserves a full consideration; which it may receive in another place.
I say, the Holy Spirit of grace and love being given from Christ, the fountain and centre of all church-union, to dwell in and abide with his church, thereby uniting it unto himself, doth work in it and all the members of it that mutual love which may and doth animate them unto all those mutual acts which are proper unto the relation wherein they stand, by virtue of their union unto Christ their head, as members of the same body one with another.
Herein consists the union of every church in itself, of all churches among themselves, and so of the whole catholic church, their communion consisting in regular acts and duties proceeding from this love, and required by virtue of it.
This account of the union and communion of churches may seem strange unto some, who are enamoured of that image which is set up of them in the world, in canons, constitutions of rites, and outward order, in various subordinations and ceremonies, which are most remote from making any due representation of them.
The church, in its dependence on Christ its head, being by its institution disposed into its proper order for its own edification, or fitly joined together and compacted, this love working effectually in every office, officer, and member, according unto its disposal in the body for the receiving and communicating supplies for edification, gives the whole both its union and communion, all the actings of it being regulated by divine rule and prescription.
Instead hereof, to erect a machine, the spring and centre of whose motions are unknown (any other, I mean, but external force), compacted by the iron joints and bands of human laws, edifying itself by the power of offices and officers foreign unto the Scripture, acting with weapons that are not spiritual but carnal, and mighty through him whose work it is to cast the members of the Church of Christ into prison, as unto an outward conformity, is to forsake the Scripture and follow our own imagination.
The outward acts of communion among churches, proceeding from this love, and the obligation that is on them to promote their mutual edification, may be referred unto the two heads of advice and assistance.
Churches have communion unto their mutual edification by advice in synods or councils; which must in this place be considered.
Synods are the meetings of divers churches by their messengers or delegates, to consult and determine of such things as are of common concernment unto them all by virtue of this communion which is exercised in them.
1. The necessity and warranty of such synods ariseth, — (1.) From the light of nature; for all societies which have the same original, the same rule, the same interest, the same ends, and which are in themselves mutually concerned in the good or evil of each other, are obliged by the power and conduct of reason to advise in common for their own good on all emergencies that stand in need thereof.
Churches are such societies; they have all one and the same authoritative institution, one and the same rule of order and worship, the same ends, as we have declared, and their entire interest is one and the same. When, therefore, any thing occurs amongst them that is attended with such difficulties as cannot be removed or taken away by any one of them severally, or in whose determination all of them are equally concerned, not to make use herein of common advice and counsel is to forsake that natural light which they are bound to attend unto in all duties of obedience unto God.
(2.) The union of all churches as before described, — in one Head, by one Spirit, through one faith and worship, unto the same ends, — doth so compact them into one body mystical as that none of them is or can be complete absolutely without a joint acting with other members of the same body unto the common good of the whole, as occasion doth require. And this joint acting with others in any church can be no otherwise but by common advice and counsel; which natural circumstances render impossible by any means but by their convention in synods by their messengers and delegates: for although there may be some use of letters missive, and was so eminently in the primitive churches, to ask the advice of one another in difficult cases (as the first instance we have of the communion of churches after the days of the apostles is, in the letter of the church of Corinth unto that of Rome, desiring their advice about the composing of a difference among them, and the answer of the church of Rome thereunto), yet many cases may fall out among them which cannot be reconciled or determined but by present conference; such as that was recorded, Acts xv. No church, therefore, is so independent as that it can always and in all cases observe the duties it owes unto the Lord Christ and the church catholic, by all those powers which it is able to act in itself distinctly, without conjunction with others. And the church that confines its duty unto the acts of its own assemblies cuts itself off from the external communion of the church catholic; nor will it be safe for any man to commit the conduct of his soul to such a church. Wherefore, —
(3.) This acting in synods is an institution of Jesus Christ, not in an express command, but in the nature of the thing itself, fortified with apostolical example; for having erected such a church-state, and disposed all his churches into such order and mutual relation unto one another as that none of them can be complete or discharge their whole duty without mutual advice and counsel, he hath thereby ordained this way of their communion in synods, no other being possible unto that end. And thereby such conventions are interested in the promise of his presence, — namely, that “where two or three are gathered together in his name, there he will be in the midst of them;” for these assemblies being the necessary effect of his own constitution, in the nature and use of his churches, are or may be in his name, and so enjoy his presence.
(4.) The end of all particular churches is the edification of the church catholic, unto the glory of God in Christ; and it is evident that in many instances this cannot be attained, yea, that it must be sinfully neglected, unless this way for the preservation and carrying of it on be attended unto. Truth, peace, and love, may be lost among churches, and so the union of the catholic church in them be dissolved, unless this means for their preservation and reparation be made use of. And that particular church which extends not its duty beyond its own assemblies and members is fallen off from the principal end of its institution; and every principle, opinion, or persuasion, that inclines any church to confine its care and duty unto its own edification only, yea, or of those only which agree with it in some peculiar practice, making it neglective of all due means of the edification of the church catholic, is schismatical.
(5.) There is direction hereunto included in the order and method of church proceedings in case of offence, prescribed unto it by Christ himself. The beginning and rise of it is between two individual persons; thence is it carried unto the cognizance and judgment of two or three others before unconcerned; from them it is to be brought unto the church; and there is no doubt but the church hath power to determine concerning it, as unto its own communion, to continue the offender in it or reject him from it. This must abide, as unto outward order and the preservation of peace. But no church is infallible in their judgment absolutely in any case; and in many their determinations may be so doubtful as not to affect the conscience of him who is censured. But such a person is not only a member of that particular church, but, by virtue thereof, of the catholic church also. It is necessary, therefore, that he should be heard and judged as unto his interest therein, if he do desire it; and this can no way be done but by such synods as we shall immediately describe.
(6.) Synods are consecrated unto the use of the church in all ages by the example of the apostles in their guidance of the first churches of Jews and Gentiles; which hath the force of a divine institution, as being given by them under the infallible conduct of the Holy Ghost, Acts xv.; which we shall speak further unto immediately.
2. Having seen the original of church synods, or their formal cause, we shall consider also their material cause, or the subject-matter to be treated of or determined in them; and this, in general, is every thing wherein churches are obliged to hold communion among themselves when any thing falls out amongst them which otherwise would disturb that communion. And hereof some instances may be given:—
(1.) Churches have mutual communion in the profession of the same faith. If any doubts or differences do arise about it, any opinions be advanced contrary unto it, either in any particular church, which they cannot determine among themselves, or among sundry churches, the last outward means for the preservation of the rule of faith among them, and of their communion in the condemnation of errors and opinions contrary unto the form of wholesome words, is by these synods or councils. The care hereof is, indeed, in the first place, committed unto the churches themselves, as was at large before declared; but in case, through the subtlety, prevalency, and interest of those by whom damnable doctrines axe broached, the church itself whereunto they do belong is not able to rebuke and suppress them, nor to maintain its profession of the truth, or that by suffering such things in one church others are in danger to be infected or defiled, this is the last external refuge that is left for the preservation of the communion of churches in the same faith. We have multiplied examples hereof in the primitive churches, before the degeneracy of these synods into superstition and domination. Such was eminently that gathered at Antioch for the condemnation of the heresies of Paulus Samosatenus, the bishop of that church.
(2.) It is so with respect unto that order, peace, and unity, wherein every particular church ought to walk in itself and amongst its own members. There were schisms, divisions, strifes, and contentions, in some of the churches that were of apostolical planting and watering; so there were at Antioch, and afterward at Corinth, as also in some of the churches in Galatia. The duty of remedying and healing these divisions and differences, from what cause soever they arise, is first incumbent on each particular member in every such church. Unto them it is given in charge by the apostle in the first place; and if every one of them do perform their duty in love, an end will be put unto all strife. In case of failure therein, the whole church is charged, in the exercise of its power, authority, and wisdom, to rebuke and compose such differences; but in case it is not able so to do, as it fell out in the church at Antioch, then an assembly of other churches walking in actual communion with that church wherein the difference is arisen, and thereon concerned in their prosperity and edification, by their messengers and delegates, is the last outward means for its composure.
(3.) Where there hath been any maladministration of discipline, whereby any members of a church have been injured, — as suppose they are unduly cast out of the church by the power and interest of some Diotrephes, or that any members of the church make a party and faction to depose their elders, as it was in the church at Corinth when the church at Rome gave them advice in the ease, — it is necessary, from the communion of churches and the interest the persons injured have in the catholic church, whose edification is the end of all church administrations, that the proceedings of such a church be reviewed by a synod, and a remedy provided in the case. Nor was it the mind of the apostles that they should be left without relief which were unduly cast out of the church by any Diotrephes, nor is there any other ordinary way hereof but only by synods; but this case, I suppose, I shall speak unto afterward.
(4.) The same is the case with respect unto worship, as also unto manners and conversation. If it be reported, or known by credible testimony, that any church hath admitted into the exercise of divine worship any thing superstitious or vain, or if the members of it walk like those described by the apostle, Phil. iii. 18, 19, unto the dishonour of the gospel and of the ways of Christ, the church itself not endeavouring its own reformation and repentance, other churches walking in communion therewith, by virtue of their common interest in the glory of Christ and honour of the gospel, after more private ways for its reduction, as opportunity and duty may suggest unto their elders, ought to assemble in a synod for advice, either as to the use of further means for the recovery of such a church, or to withhold communion from it in case of obstinacy in its evil ways. The want of a due attendance unto this part of the communion of churches, with respect unto gospel worship in its purity, and gospel obedience in its power, was a great means of the decay and apostasy of them all. By reason of this negligence, instead of being helpful one to another for their mutual recovery, and the revival of the things that were ready to die, they gradually infected one another, according as they fell into their decays, and countenanced one another by their examples unto a continuance in such disorders.
The image which, in late ages, was set up hereof, diocesan and metropolitical visitations, and those of lesser districts, Under officers of antichristian names, hath been useful rather unto destruction than edification; but so it hath fallen out in most things concerning church order, worship, and discipline. The power and spirituality of divine institutions being lost, a machine hath been framed to make an appearance and representation of them, to divert the minds of men from inquiring after the primitive institutions of Christ, with an experience of their efficacy.
Considering what we have learned in these later ages, by woful experience, of what hath fallen out formerly amongst all the churches in the world, as unto their degeneracy from gospel worship and holiness, with the abounding of temptations in the days wherein we live, and the spiritual decays that all churches are prone unto, it were not amiss if those churches which do walk in express communion would frequently meet in synods, to inquire into the spiritual state of them all, and to give advice for the correction of what is amiss, the due preservation of the purity of worship, the exercise of discipline, but especially of the power, demonstration, and fruit of evangelical obedience.
Hence it is evident what are the ends of such synods among the churches of Christ. The general end of them all is to promote the edification of the whole body or church catholic; and that, — (1.) To prevent divisions from differences in judgment and practice, which are contrary thereunto. The first Christian Synod was an assembly of the first two churches in the world by their delegates. The first church of the Jews was at Jerusalem, and the first church of the Gentiles was at Antioch; to prevent divisions and to preserve communion between them was the first synod celebrated, Acts xv. (2.) To avoid or cure offences against mutual love among them. (3.) To advance the light of the gospel by a joint confession and agreement in the faith. (4.) To give a concurrent testimony against pernicious heresies or errors, whereby the faith of any is overthrown, or in danger so to be. (5.) To relieve such by advice as may be by any Diotrephes unduly cast out of the church.
What are the ends whereunto they have been used may be seen in the volumes written concerning them, and the numberless laws enacted in them; whereof very little belongs unto the discipline of the gospel or real communion of churches.
3. The measure or extent of them ariseth from concernment and convenience. All unprejudiced persons do now acknowledge that the pretence of œcumenical councils, wherein the whole church of Christ on the earth or all particular churches should be represented, and so obliged to acquiesce in their determinations, is a fond imagination; and it were easy to demonstrate in particular how every one of them which hath in vulgar esteem obtained that title were openly remote from so being. Such councils never were, and, as it is probable, never will nor can be, nor are any way needful unto the edification of the church.
Their due measure and bounds, as was said before, are given them by concernment and convenience; wherein respect also may be had unto the ability of some churches to promote edification above others. Such churches as are, in the same instances, concerned in the causes of them before declared, and may be helpful unto the ends mentioned, are to convene in such synods. And this concernment may be either from some of those causes in themselves, or from that duty which they owe unto other churches which are immediately concerned. So it was in the assistance given by the church at Jerusalem in that case which was peculiar to the Church of Antioch.
With this interest or concernment there must be a concurrence of natural, moral, and political conveniences. Some churches are planted at such distances from others that it is naturally impossible that they should ever meet together to advise by their messengers; and some are at such as that they cannot assemble but with such difficulties and hazards as exempt them from the duty of it. And whereas they are placed under different civil governments, and those ofttimes engaged in mutual enmities, and always jealous of the actings of their own subjects in conjunction with them that are not so, they cannot so convene and preserve the outward peace of the churches, Hence the largest of the councils of old that are called “œcumenical” never extended farther than the single Roman empire, when there were innumerable churches planted under the civil jurisdiction of other sovereigns.
Wherefore, in the assembling of churches in synods, respect is to be had unto the convenience of their meeting, that it may be, so far as is possible, without trouble or danger. And this, with respect unto the causes or occasions of them, will determine what churches (which or how many) may be necessary on such occasions to constitute a synod. And it is useful hereunto that the churches which are planted within such a circumference as gives facility or convenience for such conventions should, by virtue of their mutual communion, be in express readiness to convene on all occasions of common concernment.
Again; in the assistance which, in the way of advice and counsel, any one church may stand in need of from others, respect is to be had, in their desire, unto such churches as are reputed and known to have the best ability to give advice in the case; on which account the church at Antioch addressed themselves in a peculiar manner unto the church at Jerusalem, which was far distant from them.
But in all these cases use is to be made of spiritual prudence, with respect unto all sorts of circumstances; which although some would deny, [such] as the privilege of even matters of fact, and the application of general Scripture rules unto practice, because we require divine institution unto all parts of religious worship, yet we must not decline from using the best we have in the service of Christ and, his church, rather than comply with any thing which, in the whole substance of it, is foreign to his institution.
It was the Roman empire under one monarch, in its civil distributions for rule and government, which gave the first rise and occasion unto a pretended visibly ruling catholic church under one spiritual monarch, distributed into those that were patriarchal, diocesan, metropolitical, and others of inferior kinds; for, retaining the people in their civil distributions, whereinto they were cast according to the polity and interest of the empire, there were ecclesiastical officers assigned unto each distribution, answerable unto the civil officers which were ordained in the polity of the empire. So, in answer unto deputies, exarchs, prefects, governors of provinces and cities, there were found out and erected patriarchs, metropolitans, diocesans, in various allotments of territories and powers, requiring unto their complete state one visible monarchical head, as the empire had; — which was the pope. And whereas the emperors had not only a civil rule and power, but a military also, exercised under them by legates, generals, tribunes, centurions, and the like; so there was raised an ecclesiastical militia, in various orders of monks, friars, and votaries of all sorts, who, under their immediate generals and prefects, did depend absolutely on the sovereign power of the new ecclesiastical monarch. So was the visible professing church moulded and fashioned into an image of the old Roman pagan empire, as it was foretold it should be, Rev. xiii. 13–15. And although this image was first framed in compliance with it and for a resemblance of it, yet in process of time it substituted itself entirely in the room of the empire, taking all its power unto itself, and doing all its works.
From this distribution of various sorts of new-framed churches in the Roman empire arose a constitution of synods or councils in subordination one unto another, until, by sundry degrees of ascent, they arrived unto those which they called “general,” under the conduct of the pope, whose senate they were.
But these things have no countenance given them by any divine institution, apostolical example, or practice of the first churches, but are a mere product of secular interest working itself in a mystery of iniquity.
Since the dissolution of the Roman empire, nations have been cast into distinct civil governments of their own, whose sovereignty is in themselves, by the event of war and counsels thereon emergent. Unto each of these it is supposed there is a church-state accommodated, as the church of England, the church of Scotland, the church of France, and the like; whose original and being depend on the first event of war in that [their?] dissolution. Unto these new church-states, whose being, bounds, and limits, are given unto them absolutely by those of the civil government which they belong unto, it is thought meet that ecclesiastical synods should be accommodated; but in what way this is to be done there is not yet an agreement: but it is not my present business to consider the differences that are about it, which are known unto this nation on a dear account. Yet this I shall say, that whereas it is eminently useful unto the edification of the church catholic that all the churches professing the same doctrine of faith, within the limits of the same supreme civil government, should hold constant actual communion among themselves unto the ends of it before mentioned, I see not how it can be any abridgment of the liberty of particular churches, or interfere with any of their rights which they hold by divine institution, if, through more constant lesser synods for advice, there be a communication of their mutual concerns unto those that are greater, until, if occasion require and it be expedient, there be a general assembly of them all, to advise about any thing wherein they are all concerned. But this is granted only with these limitations:— (1.) That the rights of particular churches be preserved in the free election of such as are to be members of all these synods; (2.) That they assume no authority or jurisdiction over churches or persons, in things civil or ecclesiastical; (3.) That none are immediately concerned in this proper synodal power or authority (which what it is we shall inquire) who are not present in them by their own delegates.
As for that kind of synods which some call a classis, which is a convention of the elders or officers of sundry parochial churches, distinguished for presential communion ordinarily, in some acts of it, by virtue of their office, and for the exercise of office-power, it is the constitution of a new kind of particular churches by a combination of them into one, whose original distinction is only in the civil limits of their cohabitation; which probably may be done sometimes and in some places unto edification.
4. The persons of whom all sorts of ecclesiastical synods are to consist must be inquired into; and there is nothing of mere human prudential constitution that hath longer obtained in the church than that these should be officers of the churches only. And whereas, after the days of the apostles, we have no record of any synods of more churches than one, until after the distinction was made between bishops and presbyters, they were made up of both sorts of them; but afterward, those who were peculiarly called bishops enclosed this right unto themselves, — on what grounds God knows, there being not one tittle in the Scripture or the light of reason to give them countenance therein.
It must therefore be affirmed, that no persons, by virtue of any office merely, have right to be members of ecclesiastical synods, as such; neither is there either example or reason to give colour unto any such pretence. Further; no office-power is to be exerted in such synods as such, neither conjunctly by all the members of them, nor singly by any of them. Officers of the church, bishops, pastors, elders, may be present in them, ought to be present in them, are meetest for the most part so to be, but merely as such it belongs not unto them. The care, oversight, and rule of the churches whereunto they do belong, the flock among them distinctly, is committed unto them; and for that they are intrusted with power and authority by virtue of their office: but as unto their conjunction in synods, which is a mere act and effect of the communion of churches among themselves, it is not committed unto them in a way of peculiar right by virtue of their office. If it be so, without respect unto the power of the magistrate in calling them, or of the churches in choosing them, then it belongs unto them all; for that which belongs unto any of them, as such, by virtue of office, belongs equally unto all: and if it belong unto all, then it belongs unto all of one sort only, as, for instance, bishops; or unto all of all sorts, as, for instance, presbyters also. If it be stated in the latter way, then every presbyter, as such, by virtue of his office, hath right and power to be present in all ecclesiastical synods equal with that of the bishops; for although it be supposed that his office is not equal unto theirs, yet it is so also that this right doth equally belong unto his office. If the former be avowed, namely, that this right belongs unto bishops only (such as are pleaded for), by virtue of their office as such, then, — (1.) I desire that any tolerable proof of the confinement of this right unto such an office be produced, either from the Scripture, or reason, or the example of the first churches; which as yet I have never seen. (2.) I fear not to say, that a false presumption hereof was one principal cause and means of introducing tyranny into the churches, and the utter ruin of their liberty.
Concerning the composition that is made herein, that some should convene in ecclesiastical synods by their own personal right and in virtue of their office, and others by a kind of delegation from some of their own order, it being a mere political constitution, which I shall immediately speak unto, it is not here to be taken notice of.
There is nothing, therefore, in Scripture example or the light of natural reason, with the principles of all societies in union or communion, that will lead us any farther than this, that such synods are to be composed and consist of such persons as are chosen and delegated by those churches respectively who do act and exert their communion in such assemblies. So was it in the first example of them, Acts xv. The church of Antioch chose and sent messengers of their own number to advise with the apostles and elders of the church at Jerusalem, at which consultation the members of that church also were present; and this is the whole of the nature and use of ecclesiastical synods. It is on ether accounts that they make up so great a part of the history of the church. For the first three hundred years there were nothing but voluntary conventions of the officers or elders, bishops and presbyters, with some others of neighbouring churches, on the occasion of differences or heresies among them. In and from the council of Nice, there were assemblies of bishops and others, called together by the authority of the Roman emperors, to advise about matters of faith. In after ages, those which were called in the western parts of the world, in Italy, Germany, France, and England, were of a mixed nature, advising about things civil and political, as well as sacred and religious, especially with respect unto mutual contests between popes and princes. In them the whole nature of ecclesiastical synods was lost and buried, and all religion almost destroyed.
Thus this laudable practice of churches acting their mutual communion by meeting in synods or assemblies, by their delegates or messengers, to advise about things of their common concernment and joint edification, as occasion should require, founded in the light of nature, and countenanced by primitive, apostolical example, was turned, by the designing interests and ambition of men, into the instating of all church-power in such synods, and the usurpation of a power given unto no churches nor all of them together; as might be made evident by instances innumerable.
And whereas they have made such a noise in Christian religion, and have filled so many volumes with their acts and doings, yet some of them who, under the pope, would place all religion in them, do grant and contend that they are a mere human invention; so Bellarmine affirms Pighius to have done in his book De Cœlest. Hierarch. lib. 6, cap. 1. But for his part he judgeth that it is more probable that they have a divine original by virtue of that word, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I will be in the midst of them,” Matt. xviii. 20, De Concil. lib. 1, cap. 3, which will not bear the least part of the superstructure pretended to be built upon it.
Of these delegates and messengers of the churches, the elders or officers of them, or some of them at least, ought to be the principal; for there is a peculiar care of public edification incumbent on them, which they are to exercise on all just occasions. They are justly presumed to know best the state of their own churches, and to be best able to judge of matters under consideration; and they do better represent the churches from whom they are sent than any private brethren can do, and so receive that respect and reverence which is due to the churches themselves; as also, they are most meet to report and recommend the synodal determinations unto their churches; and a contrary practice would quickly introduce confusion.
But yet it is not necessary that they alone should be so sent or delegated by the churches, but [they] may have others joined with them, and had so until prelatical usurpation overturned their liberties. So there were others besides Paul and Barnabas sent from Antioch to Jerusalem; and the brethren of that church, whatever is impudently pretended to the contrary, concurred in the decree and determination there made.
5. That which is termed the calling of these synods, is nothing but the voluntary consent of the churches concerned to meet together by their delegates and messengers, for the ends before declared.
I no way deny but that a Christian magistrate may convene, by his authority, the bishops, pastors, or ministers, with such others as he shall think meet, within his own territories, yea, and to receive into his convention meet men out of the territories of others, by their consent; to advise among themselves and to give them advice about the concernments of religion and of the church under his dominion, and regulate himself accordingly. It hath been practised with good success, and may be with bad also. And I do deny that churches have power, without the consent and authority of the magistrate, to convene themselves in synods to exercise any exterior jurisdiction that should affect the persons of his subjects any otherwise than by the law of the land is allowed.
But whereas the synods whereof we treat, and which are all that belong unto the church, can take no cognizance of any civil affairs wherein the persons of men are outwardly concerned, have no jurisdiction in any kind, can make no determination but only doctrinal declarations of divine truth, of the same nature with the preaching of the word, there is no more required unto their calling, beyond their own consent, but only that they may meet in external peace by the permission of the magistrate; which when they cannot obtain, they must deport themselves as in case of other duties required of them by the law of Christ.
6. In the last place, I shall speak briefly of the power and authority of these synods, in what measures, extent, and numbers soever they are assembled; for although this may be easily collected from what hath been declared concerning their original, nature, causes, use, and ends, yet it may be necessary to be more particularly inquired into, because of the many differences that ate about it.
There is a threefold power ascribed unto synods. The first is declarative, consisting in an authoritative teaching and declaring the mind of God in the Scripture; the second is constitutive, appointing and ordaining things to be believed, or done and observed, by and upon its own authority; and, thirdly, executive, in acts of jurisdiction towards persons and churches.
The persons whom the authority pleaded may affect are of two sorts:— (1.) Such as have their proper representatives present in such synods, who are directly concerned in its conciliary determinations; (2.) Such as have no such representatives in them, who can be no otherwise concerned but in the doctrine, materially considered, declared in them.
Wherefore the ground of any church’s receiving, complying with, or obeying the determinations and decrees of synods must be either, — (1.) The evidence of truth given unto those determinations by the synod from the Scripture; or, (2.) The authority of the synod itself, affecting the minds and consciences of those concerned.
In the first way, wherein the assent and obedience of churches is resolved ultimately into the evidence of truth from the Scripture, upon the judgment which they make thereof, not only the discovery of truth is to be owned, but there is an authoritative proposal of it by virtue of the promised presence of Christ in them, if duly sought and regarded; whence great respect and reverence is due unto them.
The power of a synod for the execution of its decrees respects either, — (1.) The things or doctrines declared, and is recommendatory of them, on its authority from the presence of Christ; or, (2.) Persons, to censure, excommunicate, or punish those who receive them not.
These things being premised, the just power of synods may be positively and negatively declared in the two following assertions:—
(1.) The authority of a synod declaring the mind of God from the Scripture in doctrine, or giving counsel as unto practice synodically, unto them whose proper representatives are present in it, whose decrees and determinations are to be received and submitted unto on the evidence of their truth and necessity, as recommended by the authority of the synod from the promised presence of Christ among them, is suitable unto the mind of Christ and the example given by the apostles, Acts xv.
Hence it is evident that, in and after such synods, it is in the power of churches concerned humbly to consider and weigh, — [1.] The evidences of the presence of Christ in them, from the manner, causes, and ends, of their assembling, and from their deportment therein. [2.] What regard, in their constitutions and determinations, there hath been unto the word of God, and whether in all things it hath had its due pre-eminence. [3.] How all their determinations have been educed from its truth and are confirmed by its authority.
Without a due exercise of judgment with respect unto these things, none can be obliged by any synodical determinations, seeing that, without them and on the want of them, many assemblies of bishops, who have had the outward appearance and title of synods or councils, have been dens of thieves, robbers, idolaters, managing their synodical affairs with fury, wrath, horrible craft, according to their interests, unto the ruin of the church. Such were the second Ephesine, the second at Nice, and that at Trent, and others not a few.
Hence nothing is more to be feared, especially in a state of the church wherein it is declining in faith, worship, and holiness, than synods, according to the usual way of their calling and convention, where these things are absent, for they have already been the principal means of leading on and justifying all the apostasy which churches have fallen into; for never was there yet synod of that nature which did not confirm all the errors and superstitions which had in common practice entered into the church, and opened a door to a progress in them, nor was ever the pretence of any of them for outward reformation of any use or signification.
(2.) The authority of a synod determining articles of faith, constituting orders and decrees for the conscientious observance of things of their own appointment, to be submitted unto and obeyed on the reason of that authority, under the penalty of excommunication, and the trouble by custom and tyranny thereto annexed, or acted in a way of jurisdiction over churches or persons, is a mere human invention, for which nothing can be pleaded but prescription from the fourth century of the church, when the progress of the fatal apostasy became visible.
The proof of both these assertions depends on what was before declared of the nature and use of these synods; for if they are such as we have evinced, no other power or authority can be ascribed unto them but that here allowed. Yet the whole may be further illustrated by some brief considerations of the assembly at Jerusalem in the nature of a synod, recorded Acts xv.
(1.) The occasion of it was a difference in the church of Antioch, which they could not compose among themselves, because those who caused the difference pretended authority from the apostles, as is evident, verses 1, 24.
(2.) The means of its convention was the desire and voluntary reference of the matter in debate made by the church at Antioch, where the difference was, unto that at Jerusalem, where, as it was pretended, the cause of the difference arose, unto the hazard of their mutual communion, to be consulted of with their own messengers.
(3.) The persons constituting the synod were the apostles, elders, and brethren of the church at Jerusalem, and the messengers of that of Antioch, with whom Paul and Barnabas were joined in the same delegation.
(4.) The matter in difference was debated, as unto the mind of God concerning it in the Scripture, and out of the Scripture. On James’ proposal the determination was made.
(5.) There was nothing imposed anew on the practice of the churches; only direction is given in one particular instance as unto duty, necessary on many accounts unto the Gentile converts, namely, to abstain from fornication and from the use of their liberty in such instances of its practice as whereon scandal would ensue; which was the duty of all Christians even before this determination, and is so still in many other instances besides those mentioned in the decree, only it was now declared unto them.
(6.) The grounds whereon the synod proposed the reception of and compliance with its decrees were four:— [1.] That what they had determined was the mind of the Holy Ghost: “It pleased the Holy Ghost.” This mind they knew either by inspiration, or immediate revelation made unto themselves, or by what was written or recorded in the Scripture, which on all other occasions they alleged as what was the word and spoken by the Holy Ghost; and it is evident that it was this latter way, namely, a discovery of the mind of the Holy Ghost in the Scripture, that is intended. However, it is concluded that nothing be proposed or confirmed in synods but what is well known to be the mind of the Holy Ghost in the Scripture, either by immediate inspiration or by Scripture revelation. [2.] The authority of the assembly, as convened in the name of Christ and by virtue of his presence, whereof we have spoken before: “It pleased the Holy Ghost and us.” [3.] That the things which they had determined were “necessary;” that is, antecedently so unto that determination, — namely, the abstaining from the use of their liberty in things indifferent, in case of scandal. [4.] From the duty with respect unto the peace and mutual communion of the Jewish and Gentile churches: “Doing thus,” say they, “ye shall do well;” which is all the sanction of their decree, manifesting that it was doctrinal, not authoritative in way of jurisdiction.
(7.) The doctrinal abridgment of the liberty of the Gentile Christians in case of scandal they call the “imposing of no other burden,” in opposition unto what they rejected, namely, the imposing a yoke of ceremonies upon them, verse 10: so that the meaning of these words is, that they would lay no burden on them at all, but only advise them unto things necessary for the avoidance of scandal; for it is impious to imagine that the apostles would impose any yoke or lay any burden on the disciples but only the yoke and burden of Christ, as being contrary to their commission, Matt. xxviii. 19, 20.
Hence it will follow that a synod convened in the name of Christ, by the voluntary consent of several churches concerned in mutual communion, may declare and determine of the mind of the Holy Ghost in the Scripture, and decree the observation of things true and necessary, because revealed and appointed in the Scripture; which are to be received, owned, and observed on the evidence of the mind of the Holy Ghost in them, and on the ministerial authority of the synod itself.
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