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THE CORRUPTION OF CONGREGATIONALISM.
CONGREGATIONALISM, as a system of church democracy, is corrupted when any foreign element is introduced into it. Its principal liabilities to corruption are from Presbyterianism. Many imagine that the two systems are essentially the same, with only slight, unimportant differences between them. But this is a great mistake. The two systems are fundamentally different. Presbyterianism is a modified episcopacy; and both are modified despotisms of the hierarchical or sacred order-kind. Enlightened Congregationalism abhors those principles, as having been the source of incalculable evils to mankind, and as liable to reproduce them in all times and in all countries.
The essential elements of Congregationalism are two: 1, The democratic government of the church by its membership, or by persons holding their appointment from the membership, and accountable to them ; 2, The supreme government of every church by itself, to the exclusion of synods, presbyteries, conventions, and all general bodies whatever. This allows advisary councils, associations of ministers, conferences of ministers and delegates; but it does not allow the establishment of any court superior to the church, either of legislation or judicature. In earlier times this point was much insisted upon. Gibbon says, in his “ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” that independence and equality formed the basis of the internal constitution of the primitive churches in the Roman empire. The same fact is attested by Mosheim, Murdock, Neander, and all the great scholars of church history.
This was regarded, at the origin of Congregationalism, as its great distinguishing feature, and gave it the name of independency. It was the point in which its friends chiefly gloried, and against which its enemies took the strongest exceptions. It is undoubtedly in conformity with the plan of the apostles, but very unlike the plans of all the ancient traditionary churches,
to be a defect, and resorted to superior ecclesiastical courts to remedy the supposed defect. The Episcopalians and Presbyterians still regard it as a defect, and are at great pains to remedy it in their respective systems. Many Congregationalists do not comprehend its importance, and are not aware of its relations to
According to the Congregationalist theory, the church is an independent body, charged with all the powers of church sovereignty whatever. Other churches have the same power, but no church, and no body of churches, has greater powers. Each church may delegate its powers to individuals and courts; but can only delegate those which it legitimately possesses originally in itself. The powers of the church are to give law.to its members conformably to the word of God, both in respect to doctrine and discipline. These members comprehend its officers, which are of the church, and not over it. The Congregational church has a athority equally over its clergy and laity. Each clergyman, however, is responsible to his own church alone. At its tribunal he stands, and there alone is he liable to fall. .
The plan of disciplining offending clergymen by mutual or exparte councils is no departure from this system. It is at the option of the church to try cases in Congregational church meetings, to appoint committees of its membership to try them, or to ask the aid of sister churches, by their ministers and delegates, in mutual or exparte councils. Calling mutual councils in such cases is a voluntary concession to the accused. If he con
securing the just rights of the accused, that can be conceived of.
If the accused does not concur, and will not coöperate with the church in calling a mutual council, then it is clearly the right of the church to call an exparte council. If the accused consents to the trial, and affords such facilities as he can to a fair investigation of his case, it is well. But, if he is refractory, he is in the hands of the church, and it is bound to judge him and dispose of his case according to the Scriptures and the principles of natural justice.
The council called to assist a church in disciplining its minister has all the legitimate authority in the case which the church gives it, and no more. It receives no power from the accused. Whether he consents or not, the jurisdiction of the court is the same.
Consociationalism is a corruption of Congregationalism. It constitutes permanent courts above and over the churches. Consociated churches resign their independency just to that extent to which they commit jurisdiction to the consociations.
It is supposed, however, by some, that pure Congregationalism is defective, and that consociations supply this defect. This was the plea of antiquity. Apostolic order without superior church courts is defective; we must supply the defect by provincial and general councils, with judicial and legislative power. This is the aim of Episcopacy and Presbyterianism. In the opinion of those orders, the churches are not competent to take oare of themselves, still less to take care of their ministers. They must have superior courts of legislation and judicature to take care of them. So say monarchists in regard to democracy in the state; the people are not competent to exercise the rights of sovereignty; they must be put under masters and tutors.
But Christ and the apostles thought otherwise, and provided no superior court above the local church. None is needed, and none can be provided without endangering the success and prosperity of the church, and, ultimately, its very existence as a church of Christ.
The objection to leaving all the higher duties of discipline to
the churches is, that they are not competent to perform them. Without counsel, they may not be; but it is in the power of the feeblest church to take the best counsel in the land; and it is, by the system of mutual and exparte councils, in the power of the accused to have the best. However incompetent churches may be, unadvised, to dispose of difficult cases of discipline, and especially those of ministers, they can do it very well with such aid. Nobody can do it better, and none can be more safely intrusted with the doing of it.
The argument for establishing courts of ecclesiastical legislation and government over churches is as indecisive in respect to the discipline of churches themselves, as it is, in respect to ministers. Churches do not require any such superior courts. This may be inferred from the fact that Christ did not establish any. But it also appears from other considerations. Such courts are inconsistent with the fundamental hypothesis of church independency and democracy. But churches may do wrong, and require discipline to bring them to their duty. This is very true. Churches may do wrong, and require discipline to bring them to their duty. So may superior superintending church courts do wrong, and require discipline to bring them to their duty; and that through all their ranks and orders. On the principle of superior courts, the superior may correct the 'inferior, till you get up to the supreme court. The supreme court superintends and controls all the subordinate ones. Who shall correct that ? Who shall make that always do right? It governs numerous churches in which it has no direct personal interest, with which it has no intimate and exact acquaintance. It may, if misled, mislead its churches. It may mislead them all. What security have we that it will not ? None at all. Such courts are far more likely to be misled than the churches are. They have not half the interest that the churches usually have, in judging correctly, in respect to the matters that come before them. Nor are they half as likely to be corrected when they have fallen into error.
The early Congregationalists in this country were exceedingly zealous on this point, and deemed it of the greatest importance, to the preservation of religion in its purity, that the most perfect independence of the churches should be maintained. But it will still be said, that the churches will often fail in the performance of their duty, and go beyond or come short of it. That may be. So will superior courts. Imperfection is incident to all human arrangements. Men cannot be perfect in any way. But, if churches may sometimes come short of their duty, and sometimes go beyond it, they will be much more likely to be corrected, and discover their mistakes in time to rectify them, than superior church courts, because they will meet the consequences of their errors face to face.
It may further be said that superior church courts are necessary to preserve the churches from relapsing into heresy. Truth must be supported by authority, and that authority must be above the church, and above its individual ministry. This is a great discovery of post-apostolic times, unknown to the apostles, and unrecognized in their institutes. They made no provision of this kind, and did not perceive the necessity of any. But the supposition is not true. Religious truth may as safely be left to its evidences as any other branch of history or philosophy. If men believe what can be proved and made clear to them, it is usually enough. False and unnecessary supports always injure a good cause. Officiousness is always offensive, often highly injurious. The churches can usually take better and safer care of their orthodoxy than superior judicatories. If they could not, we might despair. For, the plan of preserving the purity of religion by superior church courts has had the fairest trial, and has proved an entire failure. It was tried in all the ancient churches, and has failed in all.