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A DISTINCTION OF ORDERS IN THE CHURCH DEFENDED
UPON PRINCIPLES OF PUBLIC UTILITY.
EPHESIANS, iv. 11, 12. And he gave some, apostles ; and some, prophets ;
and some, evangelists ; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of
Christ. In our reasoning and discourses upon the rules and nature of the Christian dispensation, there is no distinction which ought to be preserved with greater care than that which exists between the institution, as it addresses the conscience and regulates the duty of particular Christians, and as it regards the discipline and government of the Christian church.
It was our Saviour's design, and the first object of his ministry, to afford to a lost and ignorant world such discoveries of their Creator's will, of their own interest and future destination; such assured principles of faith, and rules of practice ; such new motives, terms, and means of obedience; as might enable all, and engage many, to enter upon a course of life which, by rendering the person who pursued it acceptable to God, would conduct him to happiness in another stage of his existence.
It was a second intention of the Founder of Christianity, but subservient to the former, to associate those who consented to take upon them the profession of his faith and service into a separate community, for the purpose of united worship and mutual edifica
tion, for the better transmission and manifestation of the faith that was delivered to them, but principally to promote the exercise of that fraternal disposition which their new relation to each, which the visible participation of the same name and hope and calling, was calculated to excite.
From a view of these distinct parts of the evangelic dispensation, we are led to place a real difference between the religion of particular Christians and the polity of Christ's church. The one is personal and individual—acknowledges no subjection to human authority—is transacted in the heart—is an account between God and our own consciences alone: the other, appertaining to society (like everything which relates to the joint interest, and requires the cooperation of many persons), is visible and external-prescribes rules of common order, for the observation of which we are responsible not only to God, but to the society of which we are members; or, what is the same thing, to those with whom the public authority of the society is deposited.
But the difference which I am principally concerned to establish consists in this, that, whilst the precepts of Christian morality and the fundamental articles of the faith are, for the most part, precise and absolute, are of perpetual, universal, and unalterable obligation; the laws which respect the discipline, instruction, and government of the community are delivered in terms so general and indefinite as to admit of an application adapted to the mutable condition and varying exigencies of the Christian church.
Father hath sent me, so send I you.” “Let everything be done decently and in order.” “Lay hands suddenly
· on no man.” “ Let him that ruleth do it with dili. gence.”
“ The things which thou hast heard of me, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.” “ For this cause left I thee, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city.”
These are all general directions, supposing, indeed, the existence of a regular ministry in the church, but describing no specific order of preeminence or distribution of office and authority. If any other instances can be adduced more circumstantial than these, they will be found, like the appointment of the seven deacons, the collections for the saints, the laying by in store upon the first day of the week, to be rules of the society, rather than laws of the religion--recommendations and expedients fitted to the state of the several churches by those who then administered the affairs of them, rather than precepts delivered with a solemn design of fixing a constitution for succeeding ages. The just ends of religious as of civil union are eternally the same; but the means by which these ends may be best promoted and secured will vary with the vicissitudes of time and occasion, will differ according to the local circumstances, the peculiar situation, the improvement, character, or even the prejudices and passions of the several communities upon whose conduct and edification they are intended to operate.
The apostolic directions which are preserved in the writings of the New Testament' seem to exclude no ecclesiastical constitution which the experience and more instructed judgment of future ages might find it expedient to adopt. And this reserve, if we may so call it, in the legislature of the Christian church, was wisely suited to its primitive condition, compared with its expected progress and extent. The circumstances of Christianity, in the early period of its propagation, were necessarily very unlike those which would take place when it became the established religion of great nations. The rudiments, indeed, of the future plant were involved within the grain of mustard-seed, but still a different treatment was required for its sustentation when the birds of the air lodged amongst its branches. A small select society under the guidance of inspired teachers, without temporal rights and without property, founded in the midst of enemies, and living in subjection to unbelieving rulers, divided from the rest of the world by many singularities of conduct and persuasion, and adverse to the idolatry which public authority everywhere supported, differed so much from the Christian church after Christianity prevailed as the religion of the state ; when its economy became gradually interwoven with the civil government of the country; when the purity and propagation of its faith were left to the ordinary expedients of human instruction and an authentic Scripture; when persecution and indigence were to be succeeded by legal security and public provision-clandestine and precarious opportunities of hearing the Word and communicating in the rites of Christianity, by stationary pastors and appropriated seasons, as well as places of religious worship and resort : I say the situation of the Christian community was so different, in the infant and adult state of Christianity, that the highest inconvenience would have followed from establishing a precise constitution which was to be obligatory upon both : the same disposition of affairs which was most commodious and conducive to edification in the one, becoming probably impracticable under the circumstances, or altogether inadequate, to the wants of the other.