Page images

excused from uniting, the principle that cases of voluntary separation in worship, may occur without sin on either side, and therefore without schism,-would seem to be established. Possibly similar forbearance may still have to be exercised, between the “fulness of the Gentiles,' and the remnant of Israel.' Experience has unquestionably shown, that where there are no such deeply-rooted causes of difference in opinion, as in the case of Jews and Gentiles, a certain degree of separation in religious acts, may, through the infirmity (perhaps incurable) of human nature, be the best choice among evils. It is, without doubt, greatly preferable to the violation, even of a weak' conscience: but the charity of the gospel, would always dictate that separation should be carried to the least possible extent.


It is certain that the New Testament makes no provision for any such external uniformity, as ecclesiastical power has rendered essential to unity. Ages of progressive degeneracy elapsed, before the Christian church so far resembled those

who were in bondage under the elements of the world' as to give up itsfreedom, and submit to human impositions, in points either indifferent or doubtful. Hence the resistance and rebuke, which were called forth by the dictatorial conduct of Victor, and of Stephanus, before described. 2

Yet compliance with the prejudices of others, when it did not include participation in what was judged to be morally wrong, or questionable, was obviously the part of charity. To this effect, Augustine, speaking of the difference of rites, remarks that, in such cases, there is nothing more becoming a dignified and prudent Christian, thau to conform to the practice of that particular church which he may happen to visit.'3 That this principle has not always been carried out by Christians, as it might have been, there is too much reason to admit. Still, it should be remembered, that even excessive scrupulousness in some, is no excuse for the assumption of spiritual power by others. Our brother may err, in laying too great stress on minor points, either through ignorance, weakness of faith, or even a somewhat uncharitable tenacity, and love of independence: but we may err far more, and may be said to lay still greater stress on these very points, by demanding conformity with our own practice, as the price of

i Gal. iv. 3. ? See Pages 274. 275.
3 August. Epist. 118 ad Januar. cap. 2.

unity. Our brother's fault may be a 'weak conscience':-ours would be presumption. The measure of another's obligation, is not the measure of our right to enforce its fulfilment. There are innumerable cases, in which all we can, or ought to do, is, to state our views with fraternal affection or persuasion; and then-only to remember, that 'to his own master he standeth or falleth.'

The fact must be admitted, that great degeneracy had taken place, in the orthodox church, before any sectional distinctions, other than local, were known. Much less were there any religious parties, having interests different from those of the entire body. Every believer was regarded as a member of the church universal; and every minister was recognised as the instructor of all who could understand the language in which he preached. The heartless bigotry, or the cold ecclesiastical uncharitableness, which on the lofty pretence of order, would deny to a blameless and accredited minister of Christ, the name of 'brother,' and the public functions of a 'fellowservant in the gospel, was unknown. Diversities of rite and custom, being matter of liberty, were, as we have seen, no bar to unity :' and the same may be said in reference to church-government, in the most primitive times. Even those who assign the earliest date to the See page 80–85.

? See page 128, note 1.


[merged small][merged small][ocr errors][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small]

prevalence of Episcopacy, may be found admitting that there was a difference of practice, in regard to church-polity, during the first century at least, and probably till beyond the middle of the second. At a time, for example, when we have every reason to believe that, at Corinth, the distinction between bishops and presbyters, had not as yet been introduced-at Antioch, and in Asia Minor, according to the epistles ascribed to Ignatius, the former were obviously of superior rank, in Christian assemblies, to the latter. The evidence clearly is, that, as is testified by Jerome, the most learned Christian of his time, and the most learned of the Latin Fathers : ' among the ancients, presbyters and bishops were entirely the same; but by little and little,* the whole charge devolved on one.'

Notwithstanding any such diversities as the above, it does not appear that they were the occasion of formal distinctions of communion, like those of our modern denominations; which take their name from some peculiarity not essentially connected with the doctrine, or the morals of Christianity. For it is evident that so long as an enlarged charity prevailed, as to all things doubtful, or indifferent, and the right of each assembly to regulate its own internal affairs continued to be acknowledged; its relations with other churches, would naturally, and in the true evan

Paulatim. Hieronym. Comm. in Titum.

gelical spirit, be founded on the Truth,' in which all were agreed,) rather than on any sameness of mere outward peculiarity.

We have no evidence, in those cases, in which, if anywhere, it was most likely to be foundthose of the Corinthians, and of some of the seven churches in Asia—that even considerable disorders and corruptions in a Christian society, demanded a hasty withdrawment, on the part of the pure and faithful portion of its members. The admonitions given to the Corinthian church, and the awful threats and warnings uttered to those in Asia, amount to a call to purification, rather than separation. The reason may be, that, great as were the delinquencies of many who belonged to these churches, nothing was imposed, as a term of union and communionnothing required, in any way, to be done, or sanctioned, personally, by any one, as a member of the bodywhich pained, or rendered uneasy, the conscience of a Christian, whose mind was mainly influenced by devotion, by the sincere love of truth, and by charity. The offences were the offences of individuals. So that to remain, even in churches so far fallen, did not necessarily involve sinful compliances or compromises, or participation in other men's sins – so long as such continuance was attended with no neglect of all due faithful admonition and remonstrance, and endeavour to enforce just discipline;

« EelmineJätka »