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Concerning the Discipline of the Church.
The discipline of a church consists in their admitting or rejecting those who offer themselves to join with them ; in the members watching over each other; in reproving and admonishing those who walk disorderly, and taking all proper methods to reform them; and in rejecting those who will not be reclaimed, but continue obstinate and unreformed, when all proper means have been previously used to bring them to repentance.
The proper exercise of discipline is important and necessary in order to the comfort, edification, and prosperity of a church; and where this is wholly neglected in a church, it will go to ruin, and such a society is not worthy of the name of a Christian church. Therefore, this is particularly enjoined by Christ and his apostles.
The following particulars may serve to illustrate this subject:
I In the exercise of discipline, the church is to be wholly governed by the laws of Christ. He is the only lawgiver in his church, and in exercising discipline, Christians are to execute his laws, and have no authority or right to do any thing, unless it be agreeable to his direction and command; and whatsoever is done by the church in his name, and according to his laws, is done by authority derived from him, as they are authorized by him to execute his laws: but when, and so far as they deviate from this, they have no authority, and what they do is null and void, and disapproved by him.
II. The power to execute the laws of Christ is not given by him to any one man, or to any particular class or order of men in the church, but to the church, as a particular and distinct society; though some particular members or officers in the church may, in many instances, have a distinguished influence and lead in the transactions of the church, and put into execution their decisions. When the head of the church said to Peter, " I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven," (Matt. xvi. 19, we are not to suppose that this commission and authority was given to Peter alone, or to the apostles only, or to any distinct succession of men or officers in the church; but to the church which Peter represented in the confession he had then just made, and of which Christ speaks in the preceding words: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” And what Christ says in the next chapter confirms the truth of this supposition; for when he is there speaking of the doing of the church, in censuring and excommunicating an offender, he repeats the words above mentioned, which he had spoken to Peter, and gives this same authority to the church and sanction to their doings, according to his laws: “Verily, I say unto you, whatsoever ye
shall bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven." (Chap. xvii. 18.). Two things appear evident from hence. In the first place, that Christ did not give this commission and authority to Peter only, in distinction from the rest of his disciples, but to them all, as much as to Peter; and in the next place, that this authority was given to them, not as a distinct order of men in his church, but as his disciples, and his church, as they composed the only church which Christ then had on earth, from whom all the professed disciples of Christ, and members of his visible church, have descended as their successors, being the followers of Christ, and members of his church, as his first disciples were. Therefore, this power and authority is given to the church, and is to continue in it as long as there is a church on earth, even to the end of the world.
III. This authority, therefore, to maintain and execute the laws of Christ, is given to the church as a body or society, each member of the church having an equal concern and right to judge and act in all decisions to be made by the church, in the exercise of discipline; and the act of the majority is to be considered as the act of the church, as no society can decide and act in any other way; and that the whole church are in this way to judge, decide, and act, is evident from Scripture. When our Savior is giving particular directions respecting discipline, he gives the authority to judge and act to the church, as a society, and not to any particular member of it. “Tell it to the church; but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican.” (Matt. xviii. 17.) According to this, every matter is to come before the church, and is to be decided by the judgment and voice of the church, as a body; which cannot be done in any other way but by the judgment and voice of all the members of it, or of the majority. Agreeable to this are the words of the apostle Paul to the church at Corinth, when he gave them direction to discipline a particular member of the church, who had been guilty of a scandalous crime. “ In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such a one unto Satan.” (1 Cor. v. 4, 5.) This was to be done by the church; in order to which, they must all come together, that it might be the act of the church; and in the whole that he says on this subject, he speaks to the whole church as concerned and acting in this matter. Purge out, therefore, the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother, be a fornicator, or covetous, etc., with such a one, no not to eat. Do not ye judge them that are within ? But them that are without, God judgeth. Therefore, put away from yourselves that wicked person." And when they had rebuked and excommunicated this person, the apostle speaks of it as being done by them all, or the majority of the church. “ Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted by many," or by the most, or major part, as the word may properly be rendered. (2 Cor. ii. 6.) And he speaks the same language to other churches, when treating of this subject: “I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences, contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned, and avoid them; for they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own bellies.” (Rom. xvi. 17, 18.) “ Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which yė have received of us; and if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed.” (2 Thess. iii. 6, 14.) Hence it appears, that when this same apostle directs Timothy and Titus, respecting the exercise of discipline in the churches in which they presided, he does not mean that they had any authority in the matter over the churches, but that they should excite and lead the churches to a proper care and conduct in the strict and faithful exercise of discipline; for in any other view and sense, he would be inconsistent with himself.
It has been observed, that in every decision and act of the church, in the exercise of discipline, there must be the voice of the major part, or greatest number of the church at least; and every such act is to be considered as the act of that particular society or church. But it is desirable that the church should be unanimous in all their decisions and votes; and, therefore, all proper and possible care and pains ought to be taken to effect and maintain this unanimity in all their proceedings; and when this cannot be obtained, and there appears a difference in judgment among the members of the church, and a number do not view the case before them in the same light with the majority, they are to be treated with love and tenderness, and the latter ought to use all proper means to enlighten and convince their dissenting brethren, that they may think and act with them, and manifest a reluctance to proceed and act without their concurrence and consent; and, if possible, persuade them at least to say they are willing the majority should act as they think best, and though they cannot see with them at present, they will not be offended, nor are disposed to make any division or uneasiness in the church.
And the minority, who cannot act with their brethren in any instance, when they have offered the reasons of their dissent in meekness and love, ought to acquiesce in the decision of the church, so as to take no offence, or do any thing to interrupt the peace of the church, unless they consider the case to be so important, and the proceedings of the majority so contrary to the laws of Christ, that they ought to remonstrate, and think they cannot be faithful to Christ and their brethren unless they take some further steps. In such a case it will be the duty of the church to join with the dissatisfied in asking judgment and advice of other churches; and in any instance, where the matter to be decided is intricate or difficult, or when the person concerning whom the decision is to be made, desires it, it is proper and wise to ask the advice of other churches, in order to get all the light and help they can obtain respecting the matter to be determined. But every particular church, after asking counsel and advice, and making the best improvement of it they can, must act according to their own judg. ment, they not being bound implicitly to submit to the dictates of any other churches or councils, as having authority to decide for them in any matter, or any further than they receive light and conviction.
IV. The females are included in the male members of the church, and are to act only by them, as thus included; or the males act for them, and the women are not to dictate and vote in the church, in any matter which is to be decided, as this would be usurping and exercising that authority over the men which is forbidden in Scripture, and is inconsistent with that state of inferiority to men, which God has, for wise reasons, constituted, by which they are not to rule, but to be in subjection. But they have a right to know all the concerns and proceedings of the church, as they are equally interested in them with the male members, and it is desirable that they should be satisfied with all the transactions of the church, and know the reasons on which they proceed. They have, therefore, a right to be present in all the meetings of the church, and ought to attend with the males, and give all the light and evidence they can in any case in which it is desired, and may propose any difficulty or uneasiness in their minds respecting the proceedings of the church, in order to get information and satisfaction; and they have a right to be regarded and treated with respect and kindness by the brethren, who ought to give the sisters all the light and satisfaction in their power, in every case.
When a particular church is to be formed and constituted in any place, the proposed members of it are to satisfy each other that they are so far agreed in their understanding and judgment respecting the Bible, as to the doctrines and truths therein revealed, so far as they regard faith and practice, and that they have such a practical acquaintance with the Christian religion, and that their life and conversation are so far agreeable to the commands of Christ, that they can receive each other as real Christians to a state of church fellowship, and agree to walk in all the commands of Christ, and in attendance on his worship and ordinances. By this they are prepared to unite in a confession of their faith, or of their understanding and belief of the important and essential doctrines contained in divine revelation, and of the institutions and duties which Christ has appointed; and to enter into mutual and solemn covenant to walk in the ways and ordinances of Christ blameless, and to assist and watch over each other in their Christian practice, and in the exercise of that discipline which Jesus Christ has instituted, to prevent corruption and apostasy in the church in doctrine or practice, and for their mutual edification in love; and when the necessary officers of a church are chosen and ordained, they are prepared to attend upon all the institutions of Christ, and to exercise that discipline which he has appointed.
In the exercise of this discipline, they are to admit or reject those who offer to join with them as members of their Christian society; which is to be done with care, discerning, and judgment. After proper acquaintance with such, and a careful examination into their knowledge and belief of the most important doctrines of revelation, and their experimental acquaintance with them, and cordial approbation of them; if they appear to the church to understand and approve of those doctrines which they hold important and necessary to be understood and believed in order to be real Christians, and to be willing to devote themselves to Christ and observe all his commandments, and to make public profession of this, and enter into a solemn covenant to obey all the commands of Christ as members of that church, they are to receive them as real