Walter Scott To the Editor of the Christian Messenger (1827)

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"Prove all things: hold fast that which is good.--PAUL.

VOL. I.] GEORGETOWN, KY. MARCH 24, 1826. [NO. 5.


      Having submitted a few remarks in one of your former numbers, on the propriety of occasional meetings of Christians, with a single view to religious worship and edification, I propose making some additional observations on the government of the church of God. For information on this subject, our strong appeal will be to the Bible; to that high source every Christian should go, and "learn of him, who is meek and lowly in heart," the various duties that necessarily devolve upon the followers of the Lamb.

      When we read in the New Testament, the form of doctrine taught by the Lord and his apostles, the unsullied purity of that doctrine, the equal privileges and immunities of every member of each church, and the simplicity of that divine order of government therein exhibited; and when we contrast it with the present divided, jarring, and abstruse government, now prevalent in the Christian world, we are filled with astonishment in beholding the striking difference between the primitive simplicity of that order, instituted in the early and flourishing age of Christianity, and that which was subsequently introduced, and which has been continued through successive ages, overrunning and obscuring the original plainness of the ancient order. When we therefore ascertain what that system of government was, which was instituted by Jesus and his apostles, we then ascertain what is yet binding on the church, being still governed by the same King, "who is head over all things to the church," as his government knows no alteration, and his people must continue to be controlled by the same unalterable laws, while in a state of probation. To the great law-giver we must submit, without regard to those who may thereby decrease. [107]

      "The church," we maintain, is the highest, and only religious tribunal, to which any member "of the body" is responsible; it is absolutely independent, as being accountable to no earthly association for its conduct, and when moving in its proper sphere, is entirely uncontrolled by councils, synods, conferences, or associations. By a church I mean an assembly of disciples, believing with all their hearts the gospel of the Son of God, and manifesting in all their conduct, the truth of Jesus, and the purity of the gospel, "by walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless." To this assembly only in every member responsible, whether of a public or private character; and it invariably possesses the inherent right of exercising supreme authority, in governing and controlling its members, maintaining its virtue and purity, and doing every thing necessary and proper for its complete and entire independency, prosperity, peace, and happiness. That Christian churches were originally invested with these sovereign rights, powers, privileges, and liberties, is apparent from the Holy Scriptures; and we are unspeakably astonished, that these fundamental principles should be controverted by any candid inquirer and lover of truth.

      For the truth of the position we have thus taken, let us appeal to the only infallible guide and unerring authority. In support of the fact that each church originally exercised supreme authority in governing and controlling its members, we cite the reader to Mat. xviii, 15, 16, 17. "Moreover, if thy brother trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault, between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established; and if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church. But if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican." Thus speaks the great head of the church. Does it go clearly to confirm that for which we contend? No mention is made of a higher tribunal; no intimation of an appeal to a [107] superior ecclesiastical court; "but let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican." To pursue or to adopt a different course, is to oppose the order of God, and appears to be a species of rebellion against the King of Heaven. Again, II. Tim. iii, 16, 17, "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness; that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works." Here the design of the scriptures is unequivocally declared to be given, that Christians may be perfect, and thoroughly furnished with every thing necessary to be known, for their edification and perfection; and as no intimation of a tribunal superior to the church is given, we are bound to believe, that Christians have a form of government entirely perfect, without the addition of laws made by fallible councils. I. Cor. v. chap. and numerous other passages we might introduce, go conclusively to establish the same fact. The following passages confirm the statement that each church had, and selected its own officers: Acts xiv, 23; Titus i, 6; Acts vi, 2-6, & vi, 3; I. Peter v, 1-4; Phil. i, 1. From which it is evident, that the primitive religious societies, planted and set in order by the apostles, and governed by those laws and rules given by inspiration, were completely independent, uncontrolled by any foreign jurisdiction, or any association of churches; they managed their own affairs, and chose their own officers. Hence their government was materially variant from that which has been generally received for ages past.

      If no other testimony existed to prove the original and former sovereignty of the churches, that already given would be amply sufficient for every lover of truth; but the same fact stands most clearly attested by Church History. Dr. Mosheim, in speaking of the government of the church, in its early age, remarks, that "Every Christian church consisted of the people, their leaders, and ministers; and these indeed belong to every religious society. The people were undoubtedly first in authority, for the apostles shewed by their example [108] that nothing of moment was to be carried on or determined without the consent of the assembly. It was therefore the assembly of the people, which chose their own rulers and teachers, or received them by a free or authoritative consent, when recommended by others; that excommunicated profligate or unworthy members of the church; restored the penitent to their forfeited privileges; passed judgment upon the different subjects of controversy and dissension, that arose in the community; in a word, that exercised all that authority which belongs to such as are invested with the sovereign power." Such is the candid statement given by this distinguished historian. How analogous the picture thus drawn by Mosheim of the government of the churches in the first century, with that exhibited in the New Testament! Is not the position that "the churches were entirely independent, none of them subject to any foreign jurisdiction, but each one governed by its own rules and laws," (for such is again the language of Mosheim) fairly and positively established by the word of God, and corroborated by Church History?

      Reader, observe with attention the above quotation from Mosheim: "Every Christian assembly consisted of the people, their leaders, &c. which essentially belong to every church--the people first in authority." Is not this satisfactorily proven from the word of God? Is such the fact at present, with the great majority of churches in our land? Instead of the "people being first in authority," are they now in many societies the mere dupes and vassals of the clergy? Instead of being first in authority, do they not suffer themselves to be shamefully dictated to, and their Christian rights and privileges entirely taken from them? Even the apostles, who were placed upon the twelve thrones, by the great head of the church, "shewed by their example that nothing of moment was to be carried or determined without the consent of the assembly." Oh that the dignitaries of this day would follow their "example." It is certainly worthy of imitation. But alas! how different! Now, those who lord it over God's heritage, can carry [109] and determine matters of importance, without the consent of the assembly, spurn the people from their deliberations, compel them to obey their canons and rules, and submit unreservedly to their determinations, or be cast out of the synagogue. How variant this from apostolic times! "It was the people which chose their own rulers and teachers;" but now the people receive those chosen, not by themselves, but by others for them. But why comment? The extract shows for itself, and plainly marks the difference between the ancient order of things, when "the church exercised all that authority which belongs to such as are invested with the sovereign power," and the modern or present order, when the church is governed by laws, not made by Jesus or his apostles, but by conferences, synods, and associations.

      I know that there are exceptions amongst many of our opposing brethren, to whom many of our remarks will not apply; we only design them for such as they will suit; and that they will apply to many in our day is apparent. The church must be restored to her original independent; Christians must arise and shake off that yoke of ecclesiastical despotism, and burst those fetters of degrading tyranny, which have so long sunk them below their privileges, before all will be right, and Christian union restored. We fondly hope the time is not far distant, when the "people" will assert and maintain their right to be free and independent, under Jesus the great head; and will search, examine, and judge the scriptures for themselves, and flow together in love.

      For further information on this subject, I hope the reader will attend to your remarks on the "family of God," in your first number.

      It is my intention to let you hear from me again.


[The Christian Messenger 1 (March 24, 1827): 106-110.]


      Walter Scott's "To the Editor of the Christian Messenger" was first published in The Christian Messenger, Vol. 1, No. 5, March 1827. The electronic version of the essay has been transcribed from the Star Bible Publications reprint (1978) of The Christian Messenger, ed. Barton W. Stone (Georgetown, KY: Barton W. Stone, 1827), pp. 106-110.

      Pagination in the electronic version has been represented by placing the page number in brackets following the last complete word on the printed page. I have let stand variations and inconsistencies in the author's use of italics, capitalization, punctuation, and spelling in the essay. Emendations are as follows:

            Printed Text [ Electronic Text
 p. 108:    Acts i, 2-6, [ Acts vi, 2-6,
            former sovereignty or [ former sovereignty of
 p. 109:    dissention, [ dissension,
            analagous [ analogous

      Addenda and corrigenda are earnestly solicited.

Ernie Stefanik
373 Wilson Street
Derry, PA 15627-9770

Created 22 August 1998.

Walter Scott To the Editor of the Christian Messenger (1827)

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